Zinc in pancreatic islet biology, insulin sensitivity, and diabetes

Wolfgang Maret*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

90 Citations (Scopus)


About 20 chemical elements are nutritionally essential for humans with defined molecular functions. Several essential and nonessential biometals are either functional nutrients with antidiabetic actions or can be diabetogenic. A key question remains whether changes in the metabolism of biometals and biominerals are a consequence of diabetes or are involved in its etiology. Exploration of the roles of zinc (Zn) in this regard is most revealing because 80 years of scientific discoveries link zinc and diabetes. In pancreatic β- and α-cells, zinc has specific functions in the biochemistry of insulin and glucagon. When zinc ions are secreted during vesicular exocytosis, they have autocrine, paracrine, and endocrine roles. The membrane protein ZnT8 transports zinc ions into the insulin and glucagon granules. ZnT8 has a risk allele that predisposes the majority of humans to developing diabetes. In target tissues, increased availability of zinc enhances the insulin response by inhibiting protein tyrosine phosphatase 1B, which controls the phosphorylation state of the insulin receptor and hence downstream signalling. Inherited diseases of zinc metabolism, environmental exposures that interfere with the control of cellular zinc homeostasis, and nutritional or conditioned zinc deficiency influence the pathobiochemistry of diabetes. Accepting the view that zinc is one of the many factors in multiple gene-environment interactions that cause the functional demise of β-cells generates an immense potential for treating and perhaps preventing diabetes. Personalized nutrition, bioactive food, and pharmaceuticals targeting the control of cellular zinc in precision medicine are among the possible interventions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
JournalPreventive Nutrition and Food Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017


  • Biometals
  • Diabetes
  • Insulin resistance
  • Pancreas
  • Zinc


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