Cysteine has antioxidant properties. Its antioxidant properties are typically expressed in the tripeptide glutathione, which occurs in humans and other organisms. The systemic availability of oral glutathione (GSH) is negligible; so it must be biosynthesized from its constituent amino acids, cysteine, glycine, and glutamic acid. While glutamic acid is usually sufficient because amino acid nitrogen is recycled through glutamate as an intermediary, dietary cysteine and glycine supplementation can improve synthesis of glutathione.
Cysteine is an important source of sulfide in human metabolism. The sulfide in iron-sulfur clusters and in nitrogenase is extracted from cysteine, which is converted to alanine in the process.
Beyond the iron-sulfur proteins, many other metal cofactors in enzymes are bound to the thiolate substituent of cysteinyl residues. Examples include zinc in zinc fingers and alcohol dehydrogenase, copper in the blue copper proteins, iron in cytochrome P450, and nickel in the [NiFe]-hydrogenases. The sulfhydryl group also has a high affinity for heavy metals, so that proteins containing cysteine, such as metallothionein, will bind metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium tightly.
Disulfide bonds in proteins are formed by oxidation of the sulfhydryl group of cysteine residues. The other sulfur-containing amino acid, methionine, cannot form disulfide bonds.