Nutritional iron turned inside out: intestinal stress from a gut microbial perspective

FEMS Microbiol Rev. 2014 Nov;38(6):1202-34. doi: 10.1111/1574-6976.12086. Epub 2014 Sep 29.


Iron is abundantly present on earth, essential for most microorganisms and crucial for human health. Human iron deficiency that is nevertheless highly prevalent in developing regions of the world can be effectively treated by oral iron administration. Accumulating evidence indicates that excess of unabsorbed iron that enters the colonic lumen causes unwanted side effects at the intestinal host-microbiota interface. The chemical properties of iron, the luminal environment and host iron withdrawal mechanisms, especially during inflammation, can turn the intestine in a rather stressful milieu. Certain pathogenic enteric bacteria can, however, deal with this stress at the expense of other members of the gut microbiota, while their virulence also seems to be stimulated in an iron-rich intestinal environment. This review covers the multifaceted aspects of nutritional iron stress with respect to growth, composition, metabolism and pathogenicity of the gut microbiota in relation to human health. We aim to present an unpreceded view on the dynamic effects and impact of oral iron administration on intestinal host-microbiota interactions to provide leads for future research and other applications.

Keywords: Salmonella Typhimurium; bacterial virulence; gut microbiome; intestinal inflammation; iron supplementation; microbial metabolism.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / drug effects
  • Bacteria / immunology
  • Biodiversity
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Intestines / immunology
  • Intestines / microbiology*
  • Iron / chemistry
  • Iron / metabolism
  • Iron, Dietary / metabolism
  • Iron, Dietary / pharmacology*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Stress, Physiological / drug effects


  • Iron, Dietary
  • Iron