Metals in Biology

The details
Life Sciences (School of)
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 5
Monday 15 January 2024
Friday 22 March 2024
08 March 2024


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),
MSCIC098 Biochemistry and Biotechnology (Including Year Abroad),
MSCIC099 Biochemistry and Biotechnology (Including Placement Year),
MSCICZ99 Biochemistry and Biotechnology

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 aims of this module are:

  • To obtain an overview of the essential metal ions in living organisms and gain an insight into their functions.

  • To understand the consequences of metal toxicity and deficiency.

  • To describe the types of chemical bonds, the concept of hard and soft ligands, the chelate effect and coordination geometry of metal ions.

  • To obtain an appreciation of the crystal field theory relative to ligand binding to a transition metal ion.

  • To describe redox chemistry and its importance for biological electron transfer.

  • To appreciate 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.

  • To understand the actions of metal based drugs e.g. cis-platin and the use of lithium as a metallotherapeutic.

  • To understand the use of metal ions as contrast agents in medical imaging.

  • To obtain knowledge of metal assimilation pathways for iron, copper, manganese and zinc in bacteria and mammals. Understand the functional role of transporters.

  • To understand metal ion homeostasis in bacteria and mammals.

  • To understand the role and action of metalloregulators, metallochaperones, copper storage proteins and transmembrane efflux systems to maintain homeostasis in response to external stresses.

  • To understand the role of metal ions in the host-immune response.

  • To understand the 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.

  • To discuss the global biogeochemical nitrogen cycle and its importance to life on Earth.

  • To discuss the role of nitrogen cycle reactions in climate change and pollution .

  • To describe the process of nitrogen fixation and its role in the overall nitrogen cycle. 

  • To describe the structure, function and chemistry of nitrogenase.

  • To describe the denitrification pathway in denitrifying microorganisms.

  • To describe the structure, function and chemistry of the enzymes and electron transfer proteins of the denitrification pathway.

  • To discuss the role of anaerobic ammonium oxidation (annamox) reactions in microorganisms in the context of the nitrogen cycle.

  • To describe the enzymes and accessory proteins involved in annamox reactions including their structure, function and chemistry. 

  • To describe the heme peroxidase catalytic cycle.

  • To describe the structure and function of several different heme peroxidases.

  • To describe the applications of heme peroxidases in industrial biotechnology. 

  • To describe the structure and function of cytochromes P45024.

  • To describe the cytochrome P450 catalytic cycle.

  • To describe the application of cytochromes P450 to industrial biotechnology.

  • To discuss the roles of cytochromes P450 in human health.

  • To describe the biological role, common features, structures and signal specificity of heme-based gas sensor proteins.

  • To describe the structure, function and biological role of metal-based sensor proteins. 

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module, students will be expected 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

This module will be delivered via:

  • One 1-hour lecture per week.
  • One revision class before the summer exam.
  • One 3-hour practical (wet-lab).


This module does not appear to have a published bibliography for this year.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Coursework weighting
Coursework   BS228 Coursework reassessment for Trailing Reassessment students only  19/01/2024   
Coursework   Prac Worksheet  23/02/2024  30% 
Coursework   Proposal  19/04/2024  70% 

Exam format definitions

  • Remote, open book: Your exam will take place remotely via an online learning platform. You may refer to any physical or electronic materials during the exam.
  • In-person, open book: Your exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer to any physical materials such as paper study notes or a textbook during the exam. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, open book (restricted): The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer only to specific physical materials such as a named textbook during the exam. Permitted materials will be specified by your department. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, closed book: The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may not refer to any physical materials or electronic devices during the exam. There may be times when a paper dictionary, for example, may be permitted in an otherwise closed book exam. Any exceptions will be specified by your department.

Your department will provide further guidance before your exams.

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Prof Jonathan Worrall, email:
Dr Penny Beckerson, Dr James Birrell
School Undergraduate Office, email: bsugoffice (Non essex users should add to create the full email address)



External examiner

Dr Thomas Clarke
University of East Anglia
Senior lecturer/associate professor
Available via Moodle
Of 26 hours, 17 (65.4%) hours available to students:
9 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s), module, or event type.


Further information
Life Sciences (School of)

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