Red blood cells as an organ? How deep omics characterization of the most abundant cell in the human body highlights other systemic metabolic functions beyond oxygen transport

Expert Rev Proteomics. 2018 Nov;15(11):855-864. doi: 10.1080/14789450.2018.1531710. Epub 2018 Oct 14.


Recently, the classification of two 'novel' organs, the mesentere and interstitium, was saluted as a scientific breakthrough and disseminated into mainstream media. The novelty of these findings did not pertain to the characterization of some previously unexplored phenomena, rather to the appreciation that well-established tissues may play some hitherto unexplored functions critical to system homeostasis. Areas covered: Here we provocatively comment on the potential classification of red blood cells - by far the most abundant host cell in the human body (~ 83% of the total cells) - as an organ involved in many functions beyond gas transport. In this perspective article, we describe some of these functions with a special emphasis on the role erythrocytes play with respect to systemic metabolic homeostasis. We thus focus on how these functions modulate the cross talk of red blood cells among each other and with other cell types including immune cells. Expert commentary: The appreciation of RBCs as an organ impacting systemic metabolic homeostasis and other cell functions while engaging in complex metabolic activity beyond oxygen transport can foster the development of novel therapeutic interventions in pathologic hypoxemia, inflammation, neurodgenerative diseases, aging, and cancer.

Keywords: Erythrocyte; immunity; metabolism; metabolomics; proteomics.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Erythrocytes / metabolism*
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Immune System / metabolism
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Microbiota
  • Oxygen / metabolism
  • Vasodilation / physiology


  • Iron
  • Oxygen