Selenium Biochemistry

Science  08 Mar 1974:
Vol. 183, Issue 4128, pp. 915-922
DOI: 10.1126/science.183.4128.915


The toxicity of selenium to animals and plants has been known and extensively documented since the 1930's, but it is only during the past 15 years that selenium has also been shown to be an essential micronutrient for animals and bacteria. Very little is known about the specific role or roles of selenium and, to date, there are only three enzyme-catalyzed reactions that have been shown to require the participation of a selenium-containing protein. These are the reactions catalyzed by (i) formate dehydrogenase of bacteria, (ii) glycine reductase of clostridia, and (iii) glutathione peroxidase of erythrocytes. The common denominator of these selenium-dependent processes is that they are all oxidation-reduction reactions. A fourth selenoprotein has been isolated from skeletal muscle of sheep but its catalytic function has not been identified. The form in which selenium occurs in these selenoproteins is unknown. The selenoprotein of clostridial glycine reductase contains selenium in a covalently bound form. Studies in progress indicate that this may be an organoselenium compound not previously detected in nature. Identification of the chemical nature of selenium in proteins participating in electron transport processes should enable us to determine its specific role and to understand the basic defects in certain cardiac and skeletal muscle degenerative diseases which are selenium-deficiency syndromes. The greater availability and ease of isolation of the selenoprotein of the bacterial glycine reductase system makes this the biological material of choice for studies on the mechanism of action of selenium. An added attractive feature of this system is that it can conserve the energy made available by the reductive deamination of glycine in a biologically useful form by synthesizing ATP.