The Use and Abuse of Heme in Apicomplexan Parasites

Antioxid Redox Signal. 2012 Aug 15;17(4):634-56. doi: 10.1089/ars.2012.4539. Epub 2012 Mar 16.


Significance: Heme is an essential prosthetic group for most life on Earth. It functions in numerous cellular redox reactions, including in antioxidant defenses and at several stages of the electron transport chain in prokaryotes and eukaryotic mitochondria. Heme also functions as a sensor and transport molecule for gases such as oxygen. Heme is a complex organic molecule and can only be synthesized through a multienzyme pathway from simpler precursors. Most free-living organisms synthesize their own heme by a broadly conserved metabolic pathway. Parasites are adept at scavenging molecules from their hosts, and heme is no exception.

Recent advances: In this review we examine recent advances in understanding heme usage and acquisition in Apicomplexa, a group of parasites that include the causative agents of malaria, toxoplasmosis, and several major parasites of livestock.

Critical issues: Heme is critical to the survival of Apicomplexa, although the functions of heme in these organisms remain poorly understood. Some Apicomplexa likely scavenge heme from their host organisms, while others retain the ability to synthesize heme. Surprisingly, some Apicomplexa may be able to both synthesize and scavenge heme. Several Apicomplexa live in intracellular environments that contain high levels of heme. Since heme is toxic at high concentrations, parasites must carefully regulate intracellular heme levels and develop mechanisms to detoxify excess heme. Indeed, drugs interfering with heme detoxification serve as major antimalarials.

Future directions: Understanding heme requirements and regulation in apicomplexan parasites promises to reveal multiple targets for much-needed therapeutic intervention against these parasites.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apicomplexa / metabolism*
  • Heme / metabolism*
  • Subcellular Fractions / metabolism


  • Heme