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Labile zinc, a tiny fraction of total intracellular zinc that is loosely bound to proteins and easily interchangeable, modulates the activity of numerous signaling and metabolic pathways. Dietary plant polyphenols such as the flavonoids quercetin (QCT) and epigallocatechin-gallate act as antioxidants and as signaling molecules. Remarkably, the activities of numerous enzymes that are targeted by polyphenols are dependent on zinc. We have previously shown that these polyphenols chelate zinc cations and hypothesized that these flavonoids might be also acting as zinc ionophores, transporting zinc cations through the plasma membrane. To prove this hypothesis, herein, we have demonstrated the capacity of QCT and epigallocatechin-gallate to rapidly increase labile zinc in mouse hepatocarcinoma Hepa 1-6 cells as well as, for the first time, in liposomes. In order to confirm that the polyphenols transport zinc cations across the plasma membrane independently of plasma membrane zinc transporters, QCT, epigallocatechin-gallate, or clioquinol (CQ), alone and combined with zinc, were added to unilamellar dipalmitoylphosphocholine/cholesterol liposomes loaded with membrane-impermeant FluoZin-3. Only the combinations of the chelators with zinc triggered a rapid increase of FluoZin-3 fluorescence within the liposomes, thus demonstrating the ionophore action of QCT, epigallocatechin-gallate, and CQ on lipid membrane systems. The ionophore activity of dietary polyphenols may underlay the raising of labile zinc levels triggered in cells by polyphenols and thus many of their biological actions.

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