The intracellular trafficking pathway of transferrin

Biochim Biophys Acta. 2012 Mar;1820(3):264-81. doi: 10.1016/j.bbagen.2011.09.009. Epub 2011 Sep 22.


Background: Transferrin (Tf) is an iron-binding protein that facilitates iron-uptake in cells. Iron-loaded Tf first binds to the Tf receptor (TfR) and enters the cell through clathrin-mediated endocytosis. Inside the cell, Tf is trafficked to early endosomes, delivers iron, and then is subsequently directed to recycling endosomes to be taken back to the cell surface.

Scope of review: We aim to review the various methods and techniques that researchers have employed for elucidating the Tf trafficking pathway and the cell-machinery components involved. These experimental methods can be categorized as microscopy, radioactivity, and surface plasmon resonance (SPR).

Major conclusions: Qualitative experiments, such as total internal reflectance fluorescence (TIRF), electron, laser-scanning confocal, and spinning-disk confocal microscopy, have been utilized to determine the roles of key components in the Tf trafficking pathway. These techniques allow temporal resolution and are useful for imaging Tf endocytosis and recycling, which occur on the order of seconds to minutes. Additionally, radiolabeling and SPR methods, when combined with mathematical modeling, have enabled researchers to estimate quantitative kinetic parameters and equilibrium constants associated with Tf binding and trafficking.

General significance: Both qualitative and quantitative data can be used to analyze the Tf trafficking pathway. The valuable information that is obtained about the Tf trafficking pathway can then be combined with mathematical models to identify design criteria to improve the ability of Tf to deliver anticancer drugs. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled Transferrins: Molecular mechanisms of iron transport and disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Endocytosis
  • Endosomes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Ion Transport
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Transferrin / chemistry
  • Receptors, Transferrin / metabolism*
  • Transferrin / metabolism*


  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Transferrin
  • Iron