Cancer cell metabolism: the essential role of the nonessential amino acid, glutamine

Ji Zhang, Natalya N. Pavlova, Craig B. Thompson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

138 Scopus citations


Biochemistry textbooks and cell culture experiments seem to be telling us two different things about the significance of external glutamine supply for mammalian cell growth and proliferation. Despite the fact that glutamine is a nonessential amino acid that can be synthesized by cells from glucose-derived carbons and amino acid-derived ammonia, most mammalian cells in tissue culture cannot proliferate or even survive in an environment that does not contain millimolar levels of glutamine. Not only are the levels of glutamine in standard tissue culture media at least ten-fold higher than other amino acids, but glutamine is also the most abundant amino acid in the human bloodstream, where it is assiduously maintained at approximately 0.5 mM through a combination of dietary uptake, de novo synthesis, and muscle protein catabolism. The complex metabolic logic of the proliferating cancer cells' appetite for glutamine—which goes far beyond satisfying their protein synthesis requirements—has only recently come into focus. In this review, we examine the diversity of biosynthetic and regulatory uses of glutamine and their role in proliferation, stress resistance, and cellular identity, as well as discuss the mechanisms that cells utilize in order to adapt to glutamine limitation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1302-1315
Number of pages14
JournalEMBO Journal
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 15 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • cancer
  • glutamine metabolism
  • proliferation
  • stress response

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Molecular Biology
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)

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