The heme biosynthetic and catabolic pathways generate pro- and antioxidant compounds, and consequently, influence cellular sensitivity to oxidants. Heme precursors (delta-aminolevulinic acid, porphyrins) generate reactive oxygen species (ROS), from autoxidation and photochemical reactions, respectively. Heme, an essential iron chelate, serves in respiration, oxygen transport, detoxification, and signal transduction processes. The potential toxicity of heme and hemoproteins points to a critical role for heme degradation in cellular metabolism. The heme oxygenases (HOs) provide this function and participate in cellular defense. This hypothesis emerges from the observation that the activation of HO-1 is an ubiquitous cellular response to oxidative stress. The reaction products of HO activity, biliverdin, and its subsequent metabolite bilirubin, have antioxidant properties. Furthermore, iron released from HO activity stimulates ferritin synthesis, which ultimately provides an iron detoxification mechanism that may account for long-term cytoprotection observed after HO induction. However, such models have overlooked potential pro-oxidant consequences of HO activity. The HO reaction releases iron, which could be involved in deleterious reactions that compete with iron reutilization and sequestration pathways. Indeed, the induction of HO activity may have both pro- and antioxidant sequelae depending on cellular redox potential, and the metabolic fate of the heme iron.