Manganese: The Magical Element?


The element manganese is essential for human life. It’s aptly named after the Greek word for magic, and some mysteries surrounding its role in the body still exist today—like how our bodies absorb it, if very high or low levels can cause illness, or how it might play a role in certain diseases.

A graphic showing manganese’s symbol Mn, atomic number 25, and atomic weight 54.938 connected by lines to illustrations of steel railways, a bone, and a drinking can. Manganese steel contains ~13 percent manganese. It’s very strong and used for railways, safes, and prison bars. Manganese is essential for organisms. It’s needed for strong bones, and many enzymes also contain it. Drink cans are made with an alloy of aluminum and manganese, which helps prevent corrosion. Across the bottom of the graphic are the logo for the Royal Society of Chemistry celebrating IYPT 2019, the Compound Interest logo, and #IYPT2019. Manganese is necessary for metabolism, bone formation, antioxidation, and many other important functions in the body. The element is found in strong steel, bones and enzymes, and drink cans. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.

Making Much With Manganese

Four units of green, purple, orange, or pink ribbons and sheets connected to form a flower-like shape.
Structure of the human manganese superoxide dismutase enzyme with amino acid mutations made to study how it works. Credit: PDB 2GDS.

Manganese is a cofactor for many enzymes, meaning it must be present for the enzyme to perform its job as a catalyst. Some of the enzymes that require manganese are involved in metabolism of amino acids, cholesterol, glucose, and carbohydrates; antioxidant functions; bone formation; reproduction; and immune responses.

For example, manganese superoxide dismutase is the main antioxidant enzyme in mitochondria, the organelles that produce the cell’s main source of energy, ATP. One of the potentially dangerous byproducts of that process is a reactive oxygen species called the superoxide radical. Manganese superoxide dismutase serves as an antioxidant by converting that dangerous species into hydrogen peroxide, which another enzyme can break down into water, thereby relieving the cell of the danger.

Mission to Mars
NIGMS-funded researchers studied the possibility of survival of microorganisms in a simulation of the harsh conditions of the environment on the planet Mars. They found that the amount of manganese antioxidants a microorganism contained correlated with its ability to survive. They estimated that one species in particular, dubbed “Conan the Bacterium,” could potentially survive for 280 million years when buried 10 meters below the surface.

Minding Your Manganese

Cooked mussels sprinkled with green herbs in a pot.
Mussels are a good source of manganese. Credit: iStock.

Most people in the U.S. get the manganese they need from their diets. The body regulates the amount of manganese absorbed to maintain stable tissue concentrations of the element, and its primarily stored in bones but also in the liver, pancreas, kidney, and brain. Manganese is commonly found in a wide variety of foods, including:

  • Whole grain foods like brown rice, oatmeal, and bread
  • Mollusks like clams, oysters, and mussels
  • Pecans and hazelnuts
  • Legumes, such as soybeans, lentils, and chickpeas
  • Fruits like pineapple and blueberries
  • Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale
  • Spices, such as black pepper

NIGMS-Supported Manganese Research

Some scientists supported by NIGMS conduct manganese-related research that involve:

  • Developing new tools to better understand how cells regulate levels of manganese (and other metals), which may lead to new therapies for diseases ranging from bacterial infections to neurodegenerative disorders
  • Uncovering how manganese-dependent enzymes, such as manganese superoxide dismutase, function at an atomic level to gain a clearer picture of disease states where the enzymes function abnormally
  • Using new technologies to capture real-time data about how manganese-containing enzymes oxidize water to generate oxygen
  • Utilizing manganese and other metals as synthetic chemistry tools to manipulate chemical bonds, making new molecules or simplifying the synthesis of known molecules

Check out our other posts on elements.

Submit a Comment

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.