Laboratory medicine

The molecular biology of human iron metabolism.

PMID 24868988


Iron is one of the most important nonorganic substances that make life possible. Iron plays major roles in oxygen transport (eg, hemoglobin; -67% of total body iron [TBI]), short-term oxygen storage (eg, myoglobin; -3.5% of TBI), and energy generation (eg, cytochromes; -3% of TBI). Iron also serves vital roles in various nonheme-containing enzymes (-2% of TBI). Figure 1 lists heme-containing and nonheme iron-containing proteins. TBI is controlled by the rate of iron absorption; there are no physiologic mechanisms to excrete excess iron. Iron deficiency has many adverse consequences, including anemia, and in children, behavioral and learning disorders. Iron excess is toxic to the body, harming the heart, liver, skin, pancreatic islet beta cells, bones, joints, and pituitary gland. Maintaining proper iron balance is essential for maintaining homeostasis and health. TBI in adults normally ranges between 3.5 and 5.0 g. A total of 75% of TBI is functional, and 25% is stored within cells as ferritin or hemosiderin. Ferritin contains 24 subunits of light chains (L chains; 19.7 kDa) and heavy chains (H chains; 21.1 kDa). The L chains are encoded on chromosome 19q13.33 and are 175 amino acids long. The H chains are encoded on chromosome 11q1 and are 183 amino acids long. Each ferritin molecule can contain as many as approximately 4500 ferric ions. Because the major role of iron is in hemoglobin synthesis, this review will focus on iron, iron transport, and hematopoiesis.