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Specialized cells, known as red blood cells, are responsible for transporting oxygen to various organs in the body. Each red blood cell contains over a billion molecules of heme which make up the iron containing portion of the hemoglobin protein that binds and transports oxygen. When red blood cells reach the end of their life, they are degraded, and the heme and iron inside them is recycled to produce new red blood cells. Heme, however, is highly toxic to cells, and can cause severe tissue damage if not properly removed.
Scavenger cells called macrophages perform this recycling role in the spleen, liver and bone marrow. Collectively, macrophages can process around five million red blood cells every second or about 100 trillion heme molecules. But, it is unclear how they are able to handle such enormous volumes.
Macrophages isolated from human and mice have been shown to transport heme from damaged red blood cells using a protein called HRG1. To investigate the role HRG1 plays in heme-iron recycling, Pek et al. used a gene editing tool known an CRISPR/Cas9 to remove the gene for HRG1 from the macrophages of mice. If HRG1 is a major part of this process, removing the gene should result in a build-up of toxic heme and eventual death of the mouse.
But, rather than dying of heme-iron overload as expected, these mutant mice managed to survive. Pek et al. found that despite being unable to recycle heme, these mice were still able to make new red blood cells as long as they had a diet that was rich in iron. However, the darkening color of the spleen, bone marrow, and liver in these HRG1 deficient mice indicated that these mice were still accumulating high levels of heme. Further experiments revealed that these mice protected themselves from toxicity by converting the excess heme into crystals called hemozoin. This method of detoxification is commonly seen in blood-feeding parasites, and this is the first time it has been observed in a mammal.
These crystals invite new questions about how mammals recycle heme and what happens when this process goes wrong. The next step is to ask whether humans also start to make hemozoin if the gene for HRG1 is faulty. If so, this could open a new avenue of exploration into treatments for red blood cell diseases like anemia and iron overload.