Metals in Biology

The details
Life Sciences (School of)
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 5
Monday 13 January 2020
Friday 20 March 2020
10 January 2020


Requisites for this module



Key module for

BSC C700 Biochemistry,
BSC C701 Biochemistry (Including Placement Year),
BSC C703 Biochemistry (Including Year Abroad),
BSC CR00 Biochemistry (Including Foundation Year)

Module description

This module will examine the ways in which biological systems use the specific chemical properties offered by elements in the periodic table to perform a wide variety of functions, with a particular focus on biologically relevant metal ions.

The module will introduce the chemical principles that govern the use of essential metal ions in biological systems. Selected examples and detailed case studies will be discussed, to illustrate the functionality of the metal ion(s) once coordinated to proteins or enzymes. The impact of metal ions on human health will also be discussed in the framework of nutritional immunity, where the bioavailability of metal ions is regulated to effectively starve invading pathogens, and in the use of metallo-based drugs.

Module aims

The aim of this module is to

1. Obtain an overview of the essential metal ions in living organisms and gain an insight into their functions.
2. Understand the consequences of metal toxicity and deficiency.
3. Describe the types of chemical bonds, the concept of hard and soft ligands, the chelate effect and coordination geometry of metal ions.
4. Obtain an appreciation of the crystal field theory relative to ligand binding to a transition metal ion.
5. Describe redox chemistry and its importance for biological electron transfer.
6. Appreciation of biological ligands for metal ions – amino acid residues, low molecular weight inorganic anions, organic cofactors, porphyrin based cofactors, iron-sulfur clusters and siderophores and chalkophores.
7. Understand the actions of metal based drugs e.g. cis-platin and the use of lithium as a metallotherapeutic. Use of metal ions as contrast agents in medical imaging.
8. Obtain knowledge of metal assimilation pathways for iron, copper, manganese and zinc in bacteria and mammals. Understand the functional role of transporters.
9. Understand metal ion homeostasis in bacteria and mammals. Role and action of metalloregulators, metallochaperones, copper storage proteins and transmembrane efflux systems to maintain homeostasis in response to external stresses.
10. Understand the role of metal ions in the host-immune response.
11. Role of copper proteins in electron transport e.g. Type 1 blue copper proteins and in activating oxygen e.g. Type 2 copper proteins, multi-copper oxidases and lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases and their biotechnology applications.
12. Discuss the global biogeochemical nitrogen cycle and its importance to life on Earth.
13. Discuss the role of nitrogen cycle reactions in climate change and pollution
14. Describe the process of nitrogen fixation and its role in the overall nitrogen cycle.
15. Describe the structure, function and chemistry of nitrogenase
16. Describe the denitrification pathway in denitrifying microorganisms
17. Describe the structure, function and chemistry of the enzymes and electron transfer proteins of the denitrification pathway
18. Discuss the role of anaerobic ammonium oxidation (annamox) reactions in microorganisms in the context of the nitrogen cycle
19. Describe the enzymes and accessory proteins involved in annamox reactions including their structure, function and chemistry.
20. Describe the heme peroxidase catalytic cycle
21. Describe the structure and function of several different heme peroxidases
22. Describe the applications of heme peroxidases in industrial biotechnology.
23. Describe the structure and function of cytochromes P450
24. Describe the cytochrome P450 catalytic cycle
25. Describe the application of cytochromes P450 to industrial biotechnology
26. Discuss the roles of cytochromes P450 in human health
27. Describe the biological role, common features, structures and signal specificity of heme-based gas sensor proteins
28. Describe the structure, function and biological role of metal-based sensor proteins.

Module learning outcomes

To pass this module students will need to be able to:

1. Discuss the importance of metal ions in biology and their relative abundances in prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms, understand the principles of metal ion coordination chemistry and the chemical nature of biological ligands that can coordinate a metal ion.
2. Describe metal ion uptake and storage, in particular, the regulation of cellular metal ion concentrations (homeostasis), through examples of systems employing metalloregulators, siderophores and chalkophores, ferritins and copper storage proteins.
3. Discuss how metal ions can impart control on protein structure and dynamics through the examples of zinc fingers and metal sensor proteins and how metals can be trafficked ‘safely’ around the cell.
4. Describe the redox chemistries and catalysis associated with metalloenzymes, such as peroxidases and cytochromes P450s and their applications to industrial biotechnology
5. Discuss the roles of copper, iron and molybdenum containing enzymes involved in the global nitrogen cycle.
6. Describe the roles and function of metal-based gas and redox sensors
7. Discuss the role of metal ions in nutritional immunity and disease, and in treatments of disease such as cancers (platinum complexes) and rheumatoid arthritis (gold complexes)
8. Demonstrate competence in information retrieval and written communication

Module information

No additional information available.

Learning and teaching methods

18 x 1 hour lectures, 1 x 3 hour practical and 1 x 1 hour revision lecture


  • Robert R. Crichton. (2019) Biological Inorganic Chemistry: A New Introduction to Molecular Structure and Function: Academic Press.

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework   Prac Worksheet  13/03/2020  50% 
Coursework   Essay  21/04/2020  50% 
Exam  120 minutes during Summer (Main Period) (Main) 

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
50% 50%


Coursework Exam
50% 50%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Jonathan Worrall, email:
Dr Jonathan Worrall and Dr Mike Hough
School Undergraduate Office, email: bsugoffice (Non essex users should add to create the full email address)



External examiner

Dr Clive Butler
The University of Exeter
Associate Professor of Microbial Biochemistry
Available via Moodle
Of 46 hours, 19 (41.3%) hours available to students:
27 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


Further information
Life Sciences (School of)

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