Cadmium hijacks the high zinc response by binding and activating the HIZR-1 nuclear receptor

Brian J. Earley, Ciro Cubillas, Kurt Warnhoff, Raheel Ahmad, Alan Alcantar, Maximilian D. Lyon, Daniel L. Schneider, Kerry Kornfeld

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Cadmium is an environmental pollutant and significant health hazard that is similar to the physiological metal zinc. In Caenorhabditis elegans, high zinc homeostasis is regulated by the high zinc activated nuclear receptor (HIZR-1) transcription factor. To define relationships between the responses to high zinc and cadmium, we analyzed transcription. Many genes were activated by both high zinc and cadmium, and hizr-1 was necessary for activation of a subset of these genes; in addition, many genes activated by cadmium did not require hizr-1, indicating there are at least two mechanisms of cadmium-regulated transcription. Cadmium directly bound HIZR-1, promoted nuclear accumulation of HIZR-1 in intestinal cells, and activated HIZR-1-mediated transcription via the high zinc activation (HZA) enhancer. Thus, cadmium binding promotes HIZR-1 activity, indicating that cadmium acts as a zinc mimetic to hijack the high zinc response. To elucidate the relationships between high zinc and cadmium detoxification, we analyzed genes that function in three pathways: the pcs-1/phytochelatin pathway strongly promoted cadmium resistance but not high zinc resistance, the hizr-1/HZA pathway strongly promoted high zinc resistance but not cadmium resistance, and the mek-1/sek-1/kinase signaling pathway promoted resistance to high zinc and cadmium. These studies identify resistance pathways that are specific for high zinc and cadmium, as well as a shared pathway.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2022649118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number42
StatePublished - Oct 19 2021


  • Cadmium transcriptional response
  • Nuclear receptor
  • Zinc homeostasis
  • Zinc sensor


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