Cell biology of heme

Am J Med Sci. 1999 Oct;318(4):241-56. doi: 10.1097/00000441-199910000-00004.


Heme is a complex of iron with protoporphyrin IX that is essential for the function of all aerobic cells. Heme serves as the prosthetic group of numerous hemoproteins (eg, hemoglobin, myoglobin, cytochromes, guanylate cyclase, and nitric oxide synthase) and plays an important role in controlling protein synthesis and cell differentiation. Cellular heme levels are tightly controlled; this is achieved by a fine balance between heme biosynthesis and catabolism by the enzyme heme oxygenase. On a per-cell basis, the rate of heme synthesis in the developing erythroid cells is at least 1 order of magnitude higher than in the liver, which is in turn the second most active heme producer in the organism. Differences in iron metabolism and in genes for 5-aminolevulinic acid synthase (ALA-S, the first enzyme in heme biosynthesis) are responsible for the differences in regulation and rates of heme synthesis in erythroid and nonerythroid cells. There are 2 different genes for ALA-S, one of which is expressed ubiquitously (ALA-S1), whereas the expression of the other (ALA-S2) is specific to erythroid cells. Because the 5'-untranslated region of the erythroid-specific ALA-S2 mRNA contains the iron-responsive element, a cis-acting sequence responsible for translational induction of erythroid ALA-S2 by iron, the availability of iron controls protoporphyrin IX levels in hemoglobin-synthesizing cells. In nonerythroid cells, the rate-limiting step of heme production is catalyzed by ALA-S1, whose synthesis is feedback-inhibited by heme. On the other hand, in erythroid cells, heme does not inhibit either the activity or the synthesis of ALA-S but does inhibit cellular iron acquisition from transferrin without affecting its utilization for heme synthesis. This negative feedback is likely to explain the mechanism by which the availability of transferrin iron limits heme synthesis rate. Moreover, in erythroid cells heme seems to enhance globin gene transcription, is essential for globin translation, and supplies the prosthetic group for hemoglobin assembly. Heme may also be involved in the expression of other erythroid-specific proteins. Furthermore, heme seems to play a role in regulating either transcription, translation, processing, assembly, or stability of hemoproteins in nonerythroid cells. Heme oxygenase, which catalyzes heme degradation, seems to be an important enzymatic antioxidant system, probably by providing biliverdin, which is an antioxidant agent.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • 5-Aminolevulinate Synthetase / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Carbon Monoxide / metabolism
  • Erythrocytes / metabolism
  • Heme / biosynthesis
  • Heme / metabolism*
  • Heme Oxygenase (Decyclizing) / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Iron-Regulatory Proteins
  • Iron-Sulfur Proteins / metabolism
  • Nitric Oxide / metabolism
  • RNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Receptors, Transferrin / metabolism


  • Iron-Regulatory Proteins
  • Iron-Sulfur Proteins
  • RNA-Binding Proteins
  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Nitric Oxide
  • Heme
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Heme Oxygenase (Decyclizing)
  • 5-Aminolevulinate Synthetase