Metallothioneins (I + II) and thyroid-thymus axis efficiency in old mice: Role of corticosterone and zinc supply

Eugenio Mocchegiani, Robertina Giacconi, Catia Cipriano, Nazzarena Gasparini, Fiorenza Orlando, Rosalia Stecconi, Mario Muzzioli, Gloria Isani, Emilio Carpenè

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Thymic atrophy or thymus absence causes depressed thyroid-thymus axis (TTA) efficiency in old, young propyl-thiouracil (PTU) (experimental hypothyroidism) and in young-adult thymectomised (Tx) mice, respectively. Altered zinc turnover may be also involved in depressed TTA efficiency. Zinc turnover is under the control of zinc-bound metallothioneins (Zn-MTs) synthesis. Thyroid hormones, corticosterone and nutritional zinc affect Zn-MT induction. Zn-MT releases zinc in young-adult age during transient oxidative stress for prompt immune response. In constant oxidative stress (ageing and liver regeneration after partial hepatectomy), high liver Zn-MTs, low zinc ion bioavailability and depressed TTA efficiency appear. This last finding suggested that MT might not release zinc during constant oxidative stress leading to impaired TTA efficiency. The aim of this work/study is to clarify the role of Zn-MTs (I + II) in TTA efficiency during development and ageing. The main results are (1) Old and PTU mice display high corticosterone, enhanced liver MTmRNA, low zinc and depressed TTA efficiency restored by zinc supply. Increased survival and no significant increments in basal liver Zn-MTs proteins occur in old and PTU mice after zinc supply. (2) Lot of zinc ions bound with MT in the liver from old mice than young (HPLC). (3) Young-adult Tx mice, evaluated at 15 days from thymectomy, display high MTmRNA and nutritional-endocrine-immune damage restored by zinc supply or by thymus grafts from old zinc-treated mice. (4) Young-adult Tx mice, but evaluated at 40 days from thymectomy, display natural normalisation in MTmRNA and nutritional-endocrine-immune profile with survival similar to normal mice. (5) Stressed (constant dark for 10 days) mice overexpressing MT display low zinc, depressed immunity, reduced thymic cortex, high corticosterone, altered thyroid hormones turnover showing a likeness with old mice. These findings, taken altogether, show that corticosterone is pivotal in MTs induction under stress. MTs bind preferentially zinc ions in constant oxidative stress, but with no release of zinc from MT leading to impaired TTA efficiency. Zinc supply restores the defect because zinc has no interference in affecting pre-existing Zn-MTs protein concentrations in old and PTU mice. Therefore, free zinc ions are available for TTA efficiency after zinc supply. Thymus from old zinc-treated mice induces the same restoring effect when transplanted in Tx recipients. However, Tx mice display natural normalisation in MTmRNA and in nutritional-endocrine-immune profile in the long run. Therefore, Zn-MTs (I + II) are crucial in zinc homeostasis for endocrine-immune efficiency during the entire life assuming a role of potential and novel 'biological clock of ageing'.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)675-694
Number of pages20
JournalMechanisms of Ageing and Development
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Mar 31 2002


  • Ageing
  • Biological clock
  • Corticosterone
  • Inflammation
  • Metallothioneins
  • MTs transgenic mice
  • PTU
  • Stress
  • Survival
  • Thymus grafts
  • Thyroid-thymus axis
  • Zinc

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ageing
  • Biochemistry
  • Developmental Biology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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