Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Sciences

First Advisor

Robert J. Hondal


Selenium is a required trace element which was originally discovered by the Swedish chemist Jons Jacob Berzelius in 1817. It was initially believed to be a toxin as it was identified as being the cause of hoof maladies and excessive hair loss in horses that feed upon plants with high selenium content. It wasn’t until 1957 that the potential contributions of selenium to physiology were first demonstrated. Selenium is now known to play a critical role in the maintenance of human health. Interestingly, unlike other trace metals/semi-metals, selenium is directly incorporated into proteins in the form of the amino acid selenocysteine (Sec) in a very complicated and energetically costly fashion. Though rare, being found in only 25 human proteins, Sec proteins are involved in numerous vital biological processes including maintenance of redox homeostasis and anti-oxidant defense. Even though Sec is essential, the reason that Sec replaces its structural analog cysteine (Cys) in only 25 proteins is not widely agreed upon. A previous model suggests that the replacement of Cys with Sec provides enzymes with a type of catalytic advantage. The presence of Cys-containing orthologs of mammalian Sec-enzymes in other eukaryotes argues against this model. A newer model to explain the use of Sec is that the gain of function imparted to an enzyme by replacing Cys with Sec is the ability of Sec to impart chemical reversibility.

Building on previous results from our lab demonstrating the ability of Sec to confer proteins with the ability to resist over oxidation we have elucidated the mechanism by which Sec containing thioredoxin reductase (TrxR) resists over oxidation. The ability of Sec-TrxR to resist oxidative inactivation is due to the greater electrophilicity of Sec relative to Cys. This allows for quicker resolution and prevents over oxidation. Based on these findings we also investigate the utility of the alkylating agent dimedone to probe the oxidation state of Sec. Interestingly, it was discovered that dimedone will react with seleneninic acid with the resulting adduct being labile. Additonally it was discovered that dimedone will also react with seleninic acid, resulting in the formation of a dimedone dimer. These results call into question the usefulness of dimedone in deteremining the oxidation state of Sec. Finally, we provide evidence that Sec-TrxR enzymes are able to catalyze single electron reductions. This is most likely due to the formation of a stable Sec radical intermediate. As a whole this project provides support for the theory that Sec was selected for due to its ability to convey chemical reversiablity to proteins.



Number of Pages

174 p.

Included in

Biochemistry Commons