Heme as a danger molecule in pathogen recognition

Free Radic Biol Med. 2015 Dec;89:651-61. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2015.08.020. Epub 2015 Oct 9.


Appropriate control of redox mechanisms are critical for and effective innate immune response, which employs multiple cell types, receptors and molecules that recognize danger signals when they reach the host. Recognition of pathogen-associated pattern molecules (PAMPs) is a fundamental host survival mechanism for efficient elimination of invading pathogens and resolution of the infection and inflammation. In addition to PAMPs, eukaryotic cells contain a plethora of intracellular molecules that are normally secured within the confines of the plasma membrane, but if liberated and encountered in the extracellular milieu can provoke rapid cell activation. These are known as Alarmins or Danger-Associated Molecular Patterns (DAMPs) and can be released actively by cells or passively as a result of sterile cellular injury after trauma, ischemia, or toxin-induced cell rupture. Both PAMPs and DAMPs are recognized by a series of cognate receptors that increase the generation of free radicals and activate specific signaling pathways that result in regulation of a variety of stress response, redox sensitive genes. Multiple mediators released, as cells die include, but are not limited to ATP, hydrogen peroxide, heme, formyl peptides, DNA or mitochondria provide the second signal to amplify immune responses. In this review, we will focus on how sterile and infective stimuli activate the stress response gene heme oxygenase-1 (Hmox1, HO-1), a master gene critical to an appropriate host response that is now recognized as one with enormous therapeutic potential. HO-1 gene expression is regulated in large part by redox-sensitive proteins including but not limited to nrf2. Both PAMPs and DAMPs increase the activation of nrf2 and HO-1. Heme is a powerful pro-oxidant and as such should be qualified as a DAMP. With its degradation by HO-1a molecule of carbon monoxide (CO) is generated that in turn serves as a bioactive signaling molecule. PAMPs such as bacterial endotoxin activate HO-1, and the CO that is generated diffuses into the extracellular milieu where it interacts with bacteria, altering their behavior to increase production of ATP, which then functions as a second signal danger molecule. This two-hit cycle scenario results in efficient and effective activation of host leukocytes to attack and clear bacteria in part via enhanced reactive oxygen species generation. We discuss this intimate communication that occurs between host and bacteria and how these molecules serve as critical regulators of the acute inflammatory response, the overall redox status of the cell, and survival of the host.

Keywords: ATP; Carbon monoxide (CO); Danger associated molecular patterns (DAMPs); Heme; Heme oxygenase-1; Inflammasome; Reactive oxygen species (ROS).

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Heme Oxygenase-1 / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / immunology*
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Signal Transduction / immunology


  • Heme Oxygenase-1