Corynebacterium diphtheriae was examined for the ability to utilize various host compounds as iron sources. C. diphtheriae C7(-) acquired iron from heme, hemoglobin, and transferrin. A siderophore uptake mutant of strain C7 was unable to utilize transferrin but was unaffected in acquisition of iron from heme and hemoglobin, which suggests that C. diphtheriae possesses a novel mechanism for utilizing heme and hemoglobin as iron sources. Mutants of C. diphtheriae and Corynebacterium ulcerans that are defective in acquiring iron from heme and hemoglobin were isolated following chemical mutagenesis and streptonigrin enrichment. A recombinant clone, pCD293, obtained from a C7(-) genomic plasmid library complemented several of the C. ulcerans mutants and three of the C. diphtheriae mutants. The nucleotide sequence of the gene (hmuO) required for complementation was determined and shown to encode a protein with a predicted mass of 24,123 Da. Sequence analysis revealed that HmuO has 33% identity and 70% similarity with the human heme oxygenase enzyme HO-1. Heme oxygenases, which have been well characterized in eukaryotes but have not been identified in prokaryotes, are involved in the oxidation of heme and subsequent release of iron from the heme moiety. It is proposed that the HmuO protein is essential for the utilization of heme as an iron source by C. diphtheriae and that the heme oxygenase activity of HmuO is involved in the release of iron from heme. This is the first report of a bacterial gene whose product has homology to heme oxygenases.