Cellular Iron Metabolism and Regulation

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2019:1173:21-32. doi: 10.1007/978-981-13-9589-5_2.


Iron is an essential trace element in the human body, but excess iron is toxic as it contributes to oxidative damage. To keep iron concentration within the optimal physiologic range, iron metabolism at the cellular level and the whole systemic level are tightly regulated. Balance of iron homeostasis depends on the expression levels and activities of iron carriers, iron transporters, and iron regulatory and storage proteins. Divalent metal transporter 1 (DMT1) at the apical membrane of intestinal enterocyte brings in non-heme iron from the diet, whereas ferroportin 1 (FPN1) at the basal membrane exports iron into the circulation. Plasma transferrin (Tf) then carries iron to various tissues and cells. After binding to transferrin receptor 1 (TfR1), the complex is endocytosed into the cell, where iron enters the cytoplasm via DMT1 on the endosomal membrane. Free iron is either utilized in metabolic processes, such as synthesis of hemoglobin and Fe-S cluster, or sequestered in the cytosolic ferritin, serving as a cellular iron store. Excess iron can be exported from the cell via FPN1. The liver-derived peptide hepcidin plays a major regulatory role in controlling FPN1 level in the enterocyte, and thus controls the whole-body iron absorption. Inside the cells, iron regulatory proteins (IRPs) modulate the expressions of DMT1, TfR1, ferritin, and FPN1 via binding to the iron-responsive element (IRE) in their mRNAs. Both the release of hepcidin and the IRP-IRE interaction are coordinated with the fluctuation of the cellular iron level. Therefore, an adequate and steady iron supplement is warranted for the utilization of cells around the body. Investigations on the molecular mechanisms of cellular iron metabolism and regulation could advance the fields of iron physiology and pathophysiology.

Keywords: DMT1; FPN1; Ferritin; Hepcidin; IRPs; Iron; TfR1.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cation Transport Proteins / metabolism
  • Enterocytes / metabolism
  • Ferritins / metabolism
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Iron Overload
  • Receptors, Transferrin / metabolism
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • Transferrin / metabolism


  • Cation Transport Proteins
  • DMRT1 protein
  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Transcription Factors
  • Transferrin
  • metal transporting protein 1
  • Ferritins
  • Iron