Evolution of the transferrin family: conservation of residues associated with iron and anion binding

Comp Biochem Physiol B Biochem Mol Biol. 2005 Oct;142(2):129-41. doi: 10.1016/j.cbpb.2005.07.007.


The transferrin family spans both vertebrates and invertebrates. It includes serum transferrin, ovotransferrin, lactoferrin, melanotransferrin, inhibitor of carbonic anhydrase, saxiphilin, the major yolk protein in sea urchins, the crayfish protein, pacifastin, and a protein from green algae. Most (but not all) contain two domains of around 340 residues, thought to have evolved from an ancient duplication event. For serum transferrin, ovotransferrin and lactoferrin each of the duplicated lobes binds one atom of Fe (III) and one carbonate anion. With a few notable exceptions each iron atom is coordinated to four conserved amino acid residues: an aspartic acid, two tyrosines, and a histidine, while anion binding is associated with an arginine and a threonine in close proximity. These six residues in each lobe were examined for their evolutionary conservation in the homologous N- and C-lobes of 82 complete transferrin sequences from 61 different species. Of the ligands in the N-lobe, the histidine ligand shows the most variability in sequence. Also, of note, four of the twelve insect transferrins have glutamic acid substituted for aspartic acid in the N-lobe (as seen in the bacterial ferric binding proteins). In addition, there is a wide spread substitution of lysine for the anion binding arginine in the N-lobe in many organisms including all of the fish, the sea squirt and many of the unusual family members i.e., saxiphilin and the green alga protein. It is hoped that this short analysis will provide the impetus to establish the true function of some of the TF family members that clearly lack the ability to bind iron in one or both lobes and additionally clarify the evolutionary history of this important family of proteins.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anions / metabolism*
  • Conserved Sequence
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Humans
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Transferrin / classification*
  • Transferrin / genetics*


  • Anions
  • Transferrin
  • Iron