Exactly 200 years ago, the Swedish scientist Jöns Jacob Berzelius discovered the trace element selenium, which he named after the goddess of the moon, Selene. Besides its industrial applications (chemical industry, production of semiconductors and toners), selenium is an essential trace element and indispensable for humans, many animals and some bacteria. A team led by Dr. Marcus Conrad, research group leader at the Institute of Developmental Genetics (IDG) at Helmholtz Zentrum München, showed for the first time why selenium is a limiting factor for mammals.
Scientific ‘by-catch‘ solves decades-old mystery
The scientists have been investigating for years the processes of a novel type of cell death, known as ferroptosis. In this context, the enzyme GPX4, which normally contains selenium in the form of the amino acid selenocysteine*, plays an important role.
In order to better understand the role of GPX4 in this death process, we established and studied mouse models in which the enzyme was modified,“ said study leader Conrad. „In one of these models, we observed that mice with a replacement of selenium to sulfur in GPX4 did not survive for longer than three weeks due to neurological complications.”
In their search for the underlying reasons, the researchers identified a distinct subpopulation of specialized neurons in the brain, which were absent when selenium-containing GPX4 was lacking. „In further studies, we were able to show that these neurons were lost during postnatal development, when sulfur- instead of selenium-containing GPX4 was present,“ stated first author of the study, Irina Ingold.
Furthermore, the scientists were able to show that ferroptosis is triggered by oxidative stress, which is known to occur for instance during high metabolic activity of cells and high neuronal activity. “Our study demonstrates for the first time that selenium is an essential factor for the postnatal development of a specific type of interneurons,” said Dr. José Pedro Friedmann Angeli, a scientist at the IDG, describing the results. „Selenium-containing GPX4 protects these specialized neurons from oxidative stress and from ferroptotic cell death.“
Thus, the study explains why certain selenoenzymes are essential in some organisms, including mammals, whereas they are dispensable in other organisms, such as fungi and higher plants. In future investigations, study leader Marcus Conrad and his team aim to investigate how ferroptosis is triggered in cells. As a long-term goal, he wants to elucidate the role of ferroptosis in various disease conditions in order to be able to alleviate diseases, such as cancer or neurodegeneration, which are currently difficult to tackle.
GPX4 stands for the enzyme glutathione peroxidase 4, one of 25 selenoproteins in humans. In the enzyme, selenium is an integral part of the 21st amino acid selenocysteine. The enzyme plays a decisive role in ferroptosis. The word ferroptosis, which means a type of programmed cell death dependent on iron, is derived from the Greek ptosis: fall and Latin ferrum: iron. Ferroptosis has not yet been completely elucidated, but the importance of cellular suicide has already been impressively confirmed, for example, by apoptosis, which has been more extensively studied.
Partners at Helmholtz Zentrum München who also contributed to the study were: Dr. Hans Zischka (Institute of Toxicology), Dr. Martin Jastroch (Institute of Diabetes and Obesity), Prof. Dr. Axel Walch und Dr. Michaela Aichler (Research Unit Analytical Pathology). The PhD students Irina Ingold and Katalin Buday are members of the Helmholtz Graduate School Environmental Health HELENA.
Ingold, I. et al. (2017): Selenium utilization by GPX4 is required to prevent hydroperoxide-induced ferroptosis. Cell, DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.11.048
The Helmholtz Zentrum München, the German Research Center for Environmental Health, pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich and has about 2,300 staff members. It is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members.
Rising life expectancy is causing an increase in age-related, but also sociological and environmental, influences on the genes. The Institute of Developmental Genetics (IDG) examines these changes in genetic material. In the Mouse Genetics group, genetic animal models are developed to investigate various diseases. These models are analyzed in the Disease Modelling research group in order to identify gene functions and cell processes and evaluate the influence of the environment and aging processes. The group focuses on the examination of neurological and psychiatric diseases.
Contact for the media:
Department of Communication, Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health, Ingolstädter Landstr. 1, 85764 Neuherberg – Tel. +49 89 3187 2238 – Fax: +49 89 3187 3324 – E-mail:
Scientific Contact at Helmholtz Zentrum München:
Dr. Marcus Conrad, Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health, Institute of Developmental Genetics, Ingolstädter Landstr. 1, 85764 Neuherberg – Tel. +49 89 3187 4608, E-mail: