Developing methods for protecting organisms in metal-polluted environments is contingent upon our understanding of cellular detoxification mechanisms. In this regard, half-molecule ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporters of the HMT-1 subfamily are required for cadmium (Cd) detoxification. HMTs have conserved structural architecture that distinguishes them from other ABC transporters and allows the identification of homologs in genomes of different species including humans. We recently discovered that HMT-1 from the simple, unicellular organism, Schizosaccharomyces pombe, SpHMT1, acts independently of phytochelatin synthase (PCS) and detoxifies Cd, but not other heavy metals. Whether HMTs from multicellular organisms confer tolerance only to Cd or also to other heavy metals is not known.
Using molecular genetics approaches and functional in vivo assays we showed that HMT-1 from a multicellular organism, Caenorhabditis elegans, functions distinctly from its S. pombe counterpart in that in addition to Cd it confers tolerance to arsenic (As) and copper (Cu) while acting independently of pcs-1. Further investigation of hmt-1 and pcs-1 revealed that these genes are expressed in different cell types, supporting the notion that hmt-1 and pcs-1 operate in distinct detoxification pathways. Interestingly, pcs-1 and hmt-1 are co-expressed in highly endocytic C. elegans cells with unknown function, the coelomocytes. By analyzing heavy metal and oxidative stress sensitivities of the coelomocyte-deficient C. elegans strain we discovered that coelomocytes are essential mainly for detoxification of heavy metals, but not of oxidative stress, a by-product of heavy metal toxicity.
We established that HMT-1 from the multicellular organism confers tolerance to multiple heavy metals and is expressed in liver-like cells, the coelomocytes, as well as head neurons and intestinal cells, which are cell types that are affected by heavy metal poisoning in humans. We also showed that coelomocytes are involved in detoxification of heavy metals. Therefore, the HMT-1-dependent detoxification pathway and coelomocytes of C. elegans emerge as novel models for studies of heavy metal-promoted diseases.