Iron Absorption and Metabolism

Iron is an essential element for almost all forms of life, but most important as an oxygen transporter. When iron is in its ferrous state, oxygen binds to it within the hemoglobin molecule allowing erythrocytes to circulate and deliver oxygen to all the human bodies cells and tissues. The human body also requires iron in order to obtain ATP from cellular respiration (Oxidative phosphorylation). Although iron is an essential element to the body, like anything in nature, too much of it can be toxic. Its ability to donate and accept electrons readily means that it can spontaneously catalyze the conversion of hydrogen peroxide into free radicals. Free radicals cause a wide array of damage to cellular structures and tissues. To minimize the chances of toxicity, almost every iron atom is bound to protein structures, an example being hemoglobin. The iron is bound to the globin protein. To learn more about the structure of hemoglobin, review the previous article written. There is tight regulation of iron metabolism that allows the body to remain in homeostasis. Understanding iron metabolism is important for understanding multiple diseases of iron overload, and iron deficiency.

Iron Absorption

Most of the bodies iron comes from dietary uptake. There is continuous iron recycling occurring within the body from the sequela of hemoglobin metabolism by the spleen. The macrophages of the reticuloendothelial system store iron from the process of breaking down engulfed red blood cells. Its stored as hemosiderin. Hemosiderin is just a defined deposit of protein and iron that occurs as a result of iron overload, either systemically or locally. The metabolic functions of iron depend on the ability to change its valence state from reduced ferrous state (Fe2+) to the oxidized ferric state (Fe3+). Ferrous iron in the lumen of the duodenum is transported across the luminal side of the enterocyte by a protein called divalent metal transporter-1 (DMT1). Once iron has been absorbed across the cell membrane of the enterocyte, it can either be stored by binding to apoferritin or the cell can release the iron through the help of another transporter called ferroportin. Ferroportin is the only know protein that exports iron across cell membranes. One of the ways that the human body manages iron homeostasis is by the production of hepcidin. When iron stores are adequate, the liver will produce hepcidin, which competitively binds to ferroportin and inactivates it. When iron stores begin to drop, suppression of synthesis of hepcidin allows ferroportin to transport iron again. Before iron is taken by ferroportin across the membrane, it must be converted to its ferric form. Hephaestin, another protein on the enterocyte cell membrane oxidizes iron as it exits to its ferric form (Fe3+). Once oxidized and in its ferric state, the iron binds to apotransferrin (ApoTf). This iron:apotransferrin complex is known as transferrin (Tf). Its important to note that two molecules of ferric iron can bind to one molecule of apotransferrin.


Iron Uptake into Cells

Individual cells regulate the amount of iron they absorb to avoid adverse toxicity. Cells possess a receptor for transferrin (Tf), called transferrin receptor-1 (TfR1). The physiological pH of the plasma and extracellular fluid allow for a strong affinity to transferrin for TfR1. Through receptor mediated endocytosis transferrin saturates the TfR1 and once a critical mass has accumulated, endocytosis begins. The iron is passed into the cell into an endosome vesicle. Hydrogen ions are then pumped into the endosome and as a result the pH drops causing dissociation of the iron from the transferrin. Almost simultaneously the affinity for TfR1 to apotransferrin increases so it remains bound to the receptor while the iron remains free. The iron is then exported from the endosome vesicle into the cytoplasm by divalent metal transporter 1 (DMT1). The molecules of iron are then either stored, or transported into the mitochondria where they are incorporated into cytochromes or heme for the production of hemoglobin. While the iron is transported in the cytoplasm, the endosome fuses again with the cell membrane and in the extracellular space pH, TfR1 has a low affinity for apotransferrin so it dissociates and begins circulating again in the plasma for free transferrin. Again transferrin being a diiron:apotransferrin complex. Cells are able to store iron so they have a reserve if needed. Ferric iron (Fe3+) is stored in a protein called apoferritin. When iron binds to it it known as ferritin. Ferritin can be used at anytime during iron depletion by lysosomal degradation of the protein.



Just like hepcidin, there are other ways that the body maintains iron homeostasis. Transcription of TfR1 on the surface of the cells can either decrease or increase depending on iron stores within the cell. When iron stores are sufficient, production of TFR1 decreases, and vice versa. This is also useful in diagnosis of iron deficiency. Turns out there is a truncated form of TfR1 that circulates in serum as soluble transferrin receptors (sTfR). These sTfRs reflect the amount of tFR1 in the body. So in iron depletion there will be more circulating sTfRs indicating more production of TfR1 on the cells surface. A useful tool in the diagnosis of iron deficiency anemia.

Iron Recycling

When cells die, they are sequestered by the spleen and liver in which mechanisms salvage iron. These mechanisms are often referred to as the haptoglobin-hemopexin-methemalbumin system. Free hemoglobin in the plasma is quickly complexed with haptoglobin. By binding haptoglobin, the hemoglobin, and consequently, the iron avoid filtration by the glomerulus in the kidneys. This complex is taken up by macrophages, primarily those in the liver, spleen, bone marrow and even in the lungs. These macrophages express CD163, which is the haptoglobin scavenger receptor. The entire complex is internalized into the macrophage within a lysosome. Inside this lysosome, the iron is salvaged, the globin is catabolized as any protein would be, and the protoporphyrin is converted to unconjugated bilirubin. To learn more about the process of bilirubin metabolism, review the previous article. The haptoglobin is also degraded by the lysosome. The iron in free hemoglobin becomes oxidized to its ferric state (Fe3+), and as a result, forms methemoglobin. The heme (metheme) molecule of the free hemoglobin binds to hemopexin, preventing oxidative injury to the cells and tissues, as well as prevents loss of iron through glomerulus filtration. Albumin acts as a carrier for many proteins, including metheme. So albumin acts as a carrier for metheme to find hemopexin, which has a much higher affinity for the metheme itself. This allows for more rapid degradation of the toxic metheme.

There was a lot to learn in this article. Read carefully and go back and refer. I will try to highlight certain areas that I think are more important to the bigger picture. The next step is what happens in certain physiological disease states that leads to either iron overload or iron deficiency.

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