Thiol groups are kept in a reduced state at a concentration of approximately ~5 mM in animal cells. In effect, glutathione reduces any disulfide bond formed within cytoplasmic proteins to cysteines by acting as an electron donor. In the process, glutathione is converted to its oxidzed form glutathione disulfide (GSSG). Glutathione is found almost exclusively in its reduced form, since the enzyme that reverts it from its oxidized form, glutathione reductase, is constitutively active and inducible upon oxidative stress. In fact, the ratio of reduced glutathione to oxidized glutathione within cells is often used scientifically as a measure of cellular toxicity.
It is synthesized in two adenosine triphosphate-dependent steps:
Glutamate cysteine ligase (GCL) is a heterodimeric enzyme composed of a catalytic (GCLC) and modulatory (GCLM) subunit. GCLC constitutes all the enzymatic activity, whereas GCLM increases the catalytic efficiency of GCLC. Mice lacking GCLC (i.e., all de novo GSH synthesis) die before birth. Mice lacking GCLM demonstrate no outward phenotype, but exhibit marked decrease in GSH and increased sensitivity to toxic insults.
While all cells in the human body are capable of synthesizing glutathione, liver glutathione synthesis has been shown to be essential. Following birth, mice with genetically-induced loss of GCLC (i.e., GSH synthesis) only in the liver die within 1 month of birth.
The biosynthesis pathway for glutathione is found in some bacteria, like cyanobacteria and proteobacteria, but is missing in many other bacteria. Most eukaryotes synthesize glutathione, including humans, but some do not, such as Leguminosae, Entamoeba, and Giardia. The only archaea that make glutathione are halobacteria.
In healthy cells and tissue, more than 90% of the total glutathione pool is in the reduced form (GSH) and less than 10% exists in the disulfide form (GSSG). An increased GSSG-to-GSH ratio is considered indicative of oxidative stress.
GSH is known as a substrate in both conjugation reactions and reduction reactions, catalyzed by glutathione S-transferase enzymes in cytosol, microsomes, and mitochondria. However, it is also capable of participating in non-enzymatic conjugation with some chemicals, as in the case of N-acetyl-p-benzoquinone imine (NAPQI), the reactive cytochrome P450-reactive metabolite formed by paracetamol (or acetaminophen as it is known in the US), that becomes toxic when GSH is depleted by an overdose of acetaminophen.
Glutathione conjugates to NAPQI and helps to detoxify it, in this capacity protects cellular protein thiol groups, which would otherwise become covalently modified; when all GSH has been spent, NAPQI begins to react with the cellular proteins, killing the cells in the process. The preferred treatment for an overdose of this painkiller is the administration (usually in atomized form) of N-acetyl-L-cysteine, which is processed by cells to L-cysteine and used in the de novo synthesis of GSH.
Glutathione (GSH) participates in leukotriene synthesis and is a cofactor for the enzyme glutathione peroxidase. It is also important as a hydrophilic molecule that is added to lipophilic toxins and waste in the liver during biotransformation before they can become part of the bile. Glutathione is also needed for the detoxification of methylglyoxal, a toxin produced as a by-product of metabolism.
This detoxification reaction is carried out by the glyoxalase system. Glyoxalase I (EC 126.96.36.199) catalyzes the conversion of methylglyoxal and reduced glutathione to S-D-lactoyl-glutathione. Glyoxalase II (EC 188.8.131.52) catalyzes the hydrolysis of S-D-lactoyl-glutathione to glutathione and D-lactic acid.