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Insights into how our bodies process zinc

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Zinc is an essential mineral that our bodies need to function properly. It helps our immune systems and thyroids to function, our wounds to heal and our blood to clot. It also, confirms WebMD, "plays a key role in maintaining vision."

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and colleagues at the Universities of South Carolina (Maksymilian Chruszcz), Warwick (Claudia A. Blindauer) and St. Andrews (Alan J. Stewart) worked together to create detailed blueprints of the molecular moving vans that ferry zinc through the blood everywhere it's needed. The finding gives scientists a deeper understanding of the critical role the mineral plays in maintaining good health.

Zinc is carried through the body by a protein known as serum albumin. Scientists had expected there would be a primary binding site where serum albumin binds with zinc, and the UVA researchers proved the location of that site. But the team, led by UVA's Wladek Minor, PhD, also found several more secondary binding sites, revealing a more complex interaction than anticipated.

Minor's team used a scientific technique called X-ray crystallography to create colorful images of zinc actually bound to serum albumin. The technique allowed them to pinpoint the location of each particular zinc atom. It was a challenging task, but the resulting schematics allowed scientists to see, for the first time, exactly how serum albumin and zinc come together.

The scientists now have a better grasp of how the body maintains the delicate balances necessary for good health, a state known as homeostasis. It's a complex dance made all the more complicated by the fact that serum albumin also transports many other things, such as hormones and fatty acids.

Homeostasis can be disturbed by the level of zinc you take into your body as well as by other elements. If you have an elevated level of fatty acids as a result of diabetes or obesity, for example, it can throw homeostasis off — this can lead to serious problems since too much zinc is toxic. So while the body works to make the mineral available wherever it's needed, it has to also prevent excessive buildup from occurring.

The researchers believe their findings could eventually help shed light on why certain drugs have different effects on different people.

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