Heme oxygenase

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Heme oxygenase (HO) is an enzyme that catalyzes the degradation of heme. This produces biliverdin, iron, and carbon monoxide.


Heme oxygenase cleaves the heme ring at the alpha-methene bridge to form either biliverdin or, if the heme is still attached to a globin, verdoglobin. Biliverdin is subsequently converted to bilirubin by biliverdin reductase.

The reaction occurs as follows:

Heme + 3 AH
+ 3 O
→ biliverdin + Fe2+ + CO + 3A + 3 H

This reaction can occur in virtually every cell; the classic example is the formation of a bruise, which goes through different colors as it gradually heals: red heme to green biliverdin to yellow bilirubin. Under normal physiological conditions, the activity of heme oxygenase is highest in the spleen, where old erythrocytes are sequestrated and destroyed.


There are three known isoforms of heme oxygenase.

Heme oxygenase 1 (HO-1) is an inducible isoform in response to stress such as oxidative stress, hypoxia, heavy metals, cytokines, etc. Heme oxygenase 2 (HO-2) is a constitutive isoform which is expressed under homeostatic conditions. Both HO-1 and HO-2 are ubiquitously expressed and catalytically active.

A third heme oxygenase (HO-3) is not catalytically active, but is thought to work in oxygen sensing.

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