Transition metals interact with a large proportion of the proteome in all forms of life, and they play mandatory and irreplaceable roles. The dynamics of ligand binding to ions of transition metals falls within the realm of Coordination Chemistry, and it provides the basic principles controlling traffic, regulation, and use of metals in cells. Yet, the cellular environment stands out against the conditions prevailing in the test tube when studying metal ions and their interactions with various ligands. Indeed, the complex and often changing cellular environment stimulates fast metal–ligand exchange that mostly escapes presently available probing methods. Reducing the complexity of the problem with purified proteins or in model organisms, although useful, is not free from pitfalls and misleading results. These problems arise mainly from the absence of the biosynthetic machinery and accessory proteins or chaperones dealing with metal / metal groups in cells. Even cells struggle with metal selectivity, as they do not have a metal-directed quality control system for metalloproteins, and serendipitous metal binding is probably not exceptional. The issue of metal exchange in biology is reviewed with particular reference to iron and illustrating examples in patho-physiology, regulation, nutrition, and toxicity.
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