Ferritins: a family of molecules for iron storage, antioxidation and more

Biochim Biophys Acta. 2009 Jul;1790(7):589-99. doi: 10.1016/j.bbagen.2008.09.004. Epub 2008 Sep 26.


Ferritins are characterized by highly conserved three-dimensional structures similar to spherical shells, designed to accommodate large amounts of iron in a safe, soluble and bioavailable form. They can have different architectures with 12 or 24 equivalent or non-equivalent subunits, all surrounding a large cavity. All ferritins readily interact with Fe(II) to induce its oxidation and deposition in the cavity in a mineral form, in a reaction that is catalyzed by a ferroxidase center. This is an anti-oxidant activity that consumes Fe(II) and peroxides, the reagents that produce toxic free radicals in the Fenton reaction. The mechanism of ferritin iron incorporation has been characterized in detail, while that of iron release and recycling has been less thoroughly studied. Generally ferritin expression is regulated by iron and by oxidative damage, and in vertebrates it has a central role in the control of cellular iron homeostasis. Ferritin is mostly cytosolic but is found also in mammalian mitochondria and nuclei, in plant plastids and is secreted in insects. In vertebrates the cytosolic ferritins are composed of H and L subunit types and their assembly in a tissues specific ratio that permits flexibility to adapt to cell needs. The H-ferritin can translocate to the nuclei in some cell types to protect DNA from iron toxicity, or can be actively secreted, accomplishing various functions. The mitochondrial ferritin is found in mammals, it has a restricted tissue distribution and it seems to protect the mitochondria from iron toxicity and oxidative damage. The various functions attributed to the cytosolic, nuclear, secretory and mitochondrial ferritins are discussed.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / metabolism
  • Ferritins / chemistry
  • Ferritins / genetics
  • Ferritins / immunology
  • Ferritins / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Oxidation-Reduction


  • Antioxidants
  • Ferritins
  • Iron