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iron

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Iron is a chemical element with the symbol Fe (Latin: ferrum) and atomic number 26. Iron is a group 8 and period 4 element.

Iron is essential to nearly all known organisms.

In cells, iron is generally stored in the centre of metalloproteins, because "free" iron (which binds non-specifically to many cellular components) can catalyse production of toxic free radicals.

Iron deficiency can lead to iron deficiency anemia.

In animals, plants, and fungi, iron is often the metal ion incorporated into the heme complex. Heme is an essential component of cytochrome proteins, which mediate redox reactions, and of oxygen carrier proteins such as hemoglobin, myoglobin, and leghemoglobin.

Inorganic iron also contributes to redox reactions in the iron-sulfur clusters of many enzymes, such as nitrogenase (involved in the synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen) and hydrogenase. Non-heme iron proteins include the enzymes methane monooxygenase (oxidizes methane to methanol), ribonucleotide reductase (reduces ribose to deoxyribose; DNA biosynthesis), hemerythrins (oxygen transport and fixation in marine invertebrates) and purple acid phosphatase (hydrolysis of phosphate esters).

Iron distribution is heavily regulated in mammals, partly because iron has a high potential for biological toxicity.

Iron distribution is also regulated because many bacteria require iron, so restricting its availability to bacteria (generally by sequestering it inside cells) can help to prevent or limit infections.

This is probably the reason for the relatively low amounts of iron in mammalian milk. A major component of this regulation is the protein transferrin, which binds iron absorbed from the duodenum and carries it in the blood to cells.

Regulation of uptake

Excessive iron can be toxic, because free ferrous iron reacts with peroxides to produce free radicals, which are highly reactive and can damage DNA, proteins, lipids, and other cellular components.

Thus, iron toxicity occurs when there is free iron in the cell, which generally occurs when iron levels exceed the capacity of transferrin to bind the iron.

Iron uptake is tightly regulated by the human body, which has no regulated physiological means of excreting iron. Only small amounts of iron are lost daily due to mucosal and skin epithelial cell sloughing, so control of iron levels is mostly by regulating uptake.

However, large amounts of ingested iron can cause excessive levels of iron in the blood because high iron levels can damage the cells of the gastrointestinal tract, preventing them from regulating iron absorption, high blood concentrations of iron damage cells in the heart, liver and elsewhere, which can cause serious problems, including long-term organ damage and even death.

Humans experience iron toxicity above 20 milligrams of iron for every kilogram of mass, and 60 milligrams per kilogram is a lethal dose.

Over-consumption of iron, often the result of children eating large quantities of ferrous sulfate tablets intended for adult consumption, is one of the most common toxicological causes of death in children under six.

The DRI lists the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) for adults as 45 mg/day. For children under fourteen years old the UL is 40 mg/day.

Regulation of iron uptake is impaired in some people as a result of a genetic defect that maps to the HLA-H gene region on chromosome 6.

In these people, excessive iron intake can result in iron overload disorders, such as hemochromatosis. Many people have a genetic susceptibility to iron overload without realizing it or being aware of a family history of the problem.

For this reason, it is advised that people do not take iron supplements unless they suffer from iron deficiency and have consulted a doctor. Hemochromatosis is estimated to cause disease in between 0.3 and 0.8% of Caucasians.

The medical management of iron toxicity is complex, and can include use of a specific chelating agent called deferoxamine to bind and expel excess iron from the body.

See also

- iron metabolism
- iron deficiency