Simulated microgravity decreases circulating iron in rats: role of inflammation-induced hepcidin upregulation

Exp Physiol. 2017 Mar 1;102(3):291-298. doi: 10.1113/EP086188.


What is the central question of this study? Although microgravity is well known to reduce circulating iron in astronauts, the underlying mechanism is still unknown. We investigated whether hepcidin, a key hormone regulating iron metabolism, could be involved in this deleterious effect. What is the main finding and its importance? We show that hindlimb suspension, a model of microgravity, stimulates the production of hepcidin in liver of rats. In agreement with the biological role of hepcidin, we found a decrease of circulating iron and an increase of spleen iron content in hindlimb-unloaded rats. Consequently, our study supports the idea that hepcidin could play a role in the alteration of iron metabolism parameters observed during spaceflight. During spaceflight, humans exposed to microgravity exhibit an increase of iron storage and a reduction of circulating iron. Such perturbations could promote oxidative stress and anaemia in astronauts. The mechanism by which microgravity modulates iron metabolism is still unknown. Herein, we hypothesized that microgravity upregulates hepcidin, a hormone produced by the liver that is the main controller of iron homeostasis. To test this hypothesis, rats were submitted to hindlimb unloading (HU), the reference model to mimic the effects of microgravity in rodents. After 7 days, the mRNA level of hepcidin was increased in the liver of HU rats (+74%, P = 0.001). In agreement with the biological role of hepcidin, we found an increase of spleen iron content (+78%, P = 0.030) and a decrease of serum iron concentration (-35%, P = 0.002) and transferrin saturation (-25%, P = 0.011) in HU rats. These findings support a role of hepcidin in microgravity-induced iron metabolism alteration. Furthermore, among the signalling pathways inducing hepcidin mRNA expression, we found that only the interleukin-6/signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (IL-6/STAT3) axis was activated by HU, as shown by the increase of phospho-STAT3 (+193%, P < 0.001) and of the hepatic mRNA level of haptoglobin (+167%, P < 0.001), a STAT3-inducible gene, in HU rats. Taken together, these data support the idea that microgravity may alter iron metabolism through an inflammatory process upregulating hepcidin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Hepcidins / metabolism*
  • Hindlimb Suspension / physiology
  • Inflammation / blood
  • Inflammation / metabolism
  • Inflammation / physiopathology*
  • Interleukin-6 / metabolism
  • Iron / blood*
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Liver / physiopathology
  • Male
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • STAT3 Transcription Factor / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Space Flight / methods
  • Transcriptional Activation / physiology
  • Up-Regulation / physiology*
  • Weightlessness


  • Hepcidins
  • Interleukin-6
  • RNA, Messenger
  • STAT3 Transcription Factor
  • Iron