Current understanding of iron homeostasis

Am J Clin Nutr. 2017 Dec;106(Suppl 6):1559S-1566S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.117.155804. Epub 2017 Oct 25.


Iron is an essential trace element, but it is also toxic in excess, and thus mammals have developed elegant mechanisms for keeping both cellular and whole-body iron concentrations within the optimal physiologic range. In the diet, iron is either sequestered within heme or in various nonheme forms. Although the absorption of heme iron is poorly understood, nonheme iron is transported across the apical membrane of the intestinal enterocyte by divalent metal-ion transporter 1 (DMT1) and is exported into the circulation via ferroportin 1 (FPN1). Newly absorbed iron binds to plasma transferrin and is distributed around the body to sites of utilization with the erythroid marrow having particularly high iron requirements. Iron-loaded transferrin binds to transferrin receptor 1 on the surface of most body cells, and after endocytosis of the complex, iron enters the cytoplasm via DMT1 in the endosomal membrane. This iron can be used for metabolic functions, stored within cytosolic ferritin, or exported from the cell via FPN1. Cellular iron concentrations are modulated by the iron regulatory proteins (IRPs) IRP1 and IRP2. At the whole-body level, dietary iron absorption and iron export from the tissues into the plasma are regulated by the liver-derived peptide hepcidin. When tissue iron demands are high, hepcidin concentrations are low and vice versa. Too little or too much iron can have important clinical consequences. Most iron deficiency reflects an inadequate supply of iron in the diet, whereas iron excess is usually associated with hereditary disorders. These disorders include various forms of hemochromatosis, which are characterized by inadequate hepcidin production and, thus, increased dietary iron intake, and iron-loading anemias whereby both increased iron absorption and transfusion therapy contribute to the iron overload. Despite major recent advances, much remains to be learned about iron physiology and pathophysiology.

Keywords: anemia; ferritin; hemochromatosis; hepcidin; iron deficiency; iron overload; iron physiology; transferrin.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / blood
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / physiopathology
  • Cation Transport Proteins / genetics
  • Cation Transport Proteins / metabolism
  • Enterocytes / metabolism
  • Ferritins / blood
  • Hemochromatosis
  • Hepcidins / genetics
  • Hepcidins / metabolism
  • Homeostasis*
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Absorption
  • Iron / blood*
  • Iron / pharmacokinetics*
  • Iron Deficiencies
  • Iron Overload / blood
  • Iron Overload / physiopathology
  • Iron Regulatory Protein 1 / genetics
  • Iron Regulatory Protein 1 / metabolism
  • Iron Regulatory Protein 2 / genetics
  • Iron Regulatory Protein 2 / metabolism
  • Receptors, Transferrin / genetics
  • Receptors, Transferrin / metabolism
  • Transferrin / metabolism


  • Cation Transport Proteins
  • Hepcidins
  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Transferrin
  • metal transporting protein 1
  • solute carrier family 11- (proton-coupled divalent metal ion transporters), member 2
  • Ferritins
  • Iron
  • Iron Regulatory Protein 1
  • Iron Regulatory Protein 2