Lactoferrin and iron: structural and dynamic aspects of binding and release

Biometals. 2004 Jun;17(3):209-16. doi: 10.1023/b:biom.0000027694.40260.70.


Lactoferrin (Lf) has long been recognized as a member of the transferrin family of proteins and an important regulator of the levels of free iron in the body fluids of mammals. Its ability to bind ferric iron with high affinity (KD approximately 10(-20) M) and to retain it to low pH gives the protein bacteriostatic and antioxidant properties. This ability can be well understood in terms of its three dimensional (3D) structure. The molecule is folded into two homologous lobes (N- and C-lobes) with each lobe binding a single Fe3+ ion in a deep cleft between two domains. The iron sites are highly conserved, and highly favorable for iron binding. Iron binding and release are associated with large conformational changes in which the protein adopts either open or closed states. Comparison of available apolactoferrin structures suggests that iron binding is dependent on the dynamics of the open state. What triggers release of the tightly bound iron, however, and why lactoferrin retains iron to much lower pH than its serum homologue, transferrin, has been the subject of much speculation. Comparisons of structural and functional data on lactoferrins and transferrins now suggest that the key factor comes from cooperative interactions between the two lobes of the molecule, mediated by two alpha-helices.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Binding Sites
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Iron / chemistry*
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Lactoferrin / chemistry*
  • Lactoferrin / genetics
  • Lactoferrin / metabolism*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Folding
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary*
  • Transferrin / chemistry
  • Transferrin / metabolism


  • Transferrin
  • Iron
  • Lactoferrin