Sulfur is an essential component of all living cells. It is the seventh or eighth most abundant element in the human body by weight, about equal in abundance to potassium, and slightly greater than sodium and chlorine. A 70 kg (150 lb) human body contains about 140 grams of sulfur.
In plants and animals, the amino acids cysteine and methionine contain most of the sulfur, and the element is present in all polypeptides, proteins, and enzymes that contain these amino acids. In humans, methionine is an essential amino acid that must be ingested. However, save for the vitamins biotin and thiamine, cysteine and all sulfur-containing compounds in the human body can be synthesized from methionine. The enzyme sulfite oxidase is needed for the metabolism of methionine and cysteine in humans and animals.
Disulfide bonds (S-S bonds) between cysteine residues in peptide chains are very important in protein assembly and structure. These covalent bonds between peptide chains confer extra toughness and rigidity. For example, the high strength of feathers and hair is due in part to the high content of S-S bonds with cysteine and sulfur. Eggs are high in sulfur to nourish feather formation in chicks, and the characteristic odor of rotting eggs is due to hydrogen sulfide. The high disulfide bond content of hair and feathers contributes to their indigestibility and to their characteristic disagreeable odor when burned.
Homocysteine and taurine are other sulfur-containing acids that are similar in structure, but not coded by DNA, and are not part of the primary structure of proteins. Many important cellular enzymes use prosthetic groups ending with -SH moieties to handle reactions involving acyl-containing biochemicals: two common examples from basic metabolism are coenzyme A and alpha-lipoic acid. Two of the 13 classical vitamins, biotin and thiamine, contain sulfur, with the latter being named for its sulfur content.
In intracellular chemistry, sulfur operates as a carrier of reducing hydrogen and its electrons for cellular repair of oxidation. Reduced glutathione, a sulfur-containing tripeptide, is a reducing agent through its sulfhydryl (-SH) moiety derived from cysteine. The thioredoxins, a class of small proteins essential to all known life, use neighboring pairs of reduced cysteines to work as general protein reducing agents, with similar effect.
Methanogenesis, the route to most of the world's methane, is a multistep biochemical transformation of carbon dioxide. This conversion requires several organosulfur cofactors. These include coenzyme M, CH3SCH2CH2SO3−, the immediate precursor to methane.
Metalloproteins and inorganic cofactors
Inorganic sulfur forms a part of iron–sulfur clusters as well as many copper, nickel, and iron proteins. Most pervasive are the ferrodoxins, which serve as electron shuttles in cells. In bacteria, the important nitrogenase enzymes contains an Fe–Mo–S cluster and is a catalyst that performs the important function of nitrogen fixation, converting atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia that can be used by microorganisms and plants to make proteins, DNA, RNA, alkaloids, and the other organic nitrogen compounds necessary for life.
Sulfur metabolism and the sulfur cycle
The sulfur cycle was the first of the biogeochemical cycles to be discovered. In the 1880s, while studying Beggiatoa (a bacterium living in a sulfur rich environment), Sergei Winogradsky found that it oxidized hydrogen sulfide (H2S) as an energy source, forming intracellular sulfur droplets. Winogradsky referred to this form of metabolism as inorgoxidation (oxidation of inorganic compounds). He continued to study it together with Selman Waksman until the 1950s.
Sulfur oxidizers can use as energy sources reduced sulfur compounds, including hydrogen sulfide, elemental sulfur, sulfite, thiosulfate, and various polythionates (e.g., tetrathionate). They depend on enzymes such as sulfur oxygenase and sulfite oxidase to oxidize sulfur to sulfate. Some lithotrophs can even use the energy contained in sulfur compounds to produce sugars, a process known as chemosynthesis. Some bacteria and archaea use hydrogen sulfide in place of water as the electron donor in chemosynthesis, a process similar to photosynthesis that produces sugars and utilizes oxygen as the electron acceptor. The photosynthetic green sulfur bacteria and purple sulfur bacteria and some lithotrophs use elemental oxygen to carry out such oxidization of hydrogen sulfide to produce elemental sulfur (S0), oxidation state = 0. Primitive bacteria that live around deep ocean volcanic vents oxidize hydrogen sulfide in this way with oxygen; the giant tube worm is an example of a large organism that uses hydrogen sulfide (via bacteria) as food to be oxidized.
The so-called sulfate-reducing bacteria, by contrast, "breathe sulfate" instead of oxygen. They use organic compounds or molecular hydrogen as the energy source. They use sulfur as the electron acceptor, and reduce various oxidized sulfur compounds back into sulfide, often into hydrogen sulfide. They can grow on other partially oxidized sulfur compounds (e.g. thiosulfates, thionates, polysulfides, sulfites). The hydrogen sulfide produced by these bacteria is responsible for some of the smell of intestinal gases (flatus) and decomposition products.
Sulfur is absorbed by plants roots from soil as sulfate and transported as a phosphate ester. Sulfate is reduced to sulfide via sulfite before it is incorporated into cysteine and other organosulfur compounds.
- SO42− → SO32− → H2S → cysteine → methionine