Role of Transferrin in Iron Transport and Metabolism


Iron is an essential mineral for various biological processes, including oxygen transport, energy production, and DNA synthesis. However, iron cannot be freely transported in the bloodstream due to its potential toxicity. Transferrin, a glycoprotein, plays a crucial role in iron transport and metabolism by binding and delivering iron to cells. In this article, we will explore the role of transferrin in iron transport and metabolism.

Iron Binding and Transport

Iron Binding Capacity

Transferrin has a high affinity for iron and can bind up to two iron atoms per molecule. It is produced by the liver and secreted into the bloodstream. Iron in the bloodstream exists in two forms: ferric iron (Fe3+) and ferrous iron (Fe2+). Transferrin primarily binds to ferric iron, which is the oxidized form of iron commonly found in the bloodstream.

Transferrin Receptor

To facilitate iron uptake into cells, transferrin binds to transferrin receptors on the cell surface. These receptors are present on various cell types, including those involved in iron metabolism, such as hepatocytes (liver cells) and erythroid precursors (cells involved in red blood cell production). The binding of transferrin to its receptor triggers endocytosis, allowing the internalization of the transferrin-iron complex into the cell.

Iron Release

Once inside the cell, the transferrin-iron complex undergoes acidification within endosomes, leading to the release of iron from transferrin. The reduced pH promotes dissociation of iron from transferrin, allowing it to be released into the cytoplasm. The freed iron can then be utilized in various cellular processes or stored within iron-binding proteins such as ferritin.

Iron Metabolism Regulation

Hepcidin Regulation

Transferrin also plays a role in the regulation of iron metabolism through its interaction with hepcidin, a hormone produced by the liver. Hepcidin controls iron levels by inhibiting iron absorption in the intestine and iron release from cells that store iron. When iron levels are high, transferrin-bound iron interacts with hepcidin, leading to its upregulation. Increased hepcidin levels reduce iron absorption and promote iron sequestration, helping to maintain iron homeostasis.

Anemia and Iron Deficiency

Transferrin levels can be used as a marker for iron deficiency and anemia. During iron deficiency, the body’s iron stores become depleted, resulting in reduced transferrin saturation and increased transferrin production. These changes aim to increase iron uptake and availability to meet the body’s iron requirements.

Clinical Applications

Iron Overload Disorders

Transferrin plays a crucial role in diagnosing and monitoring iron overload disorders such as hereditary hemochromatosis. In this condition, there is excessive iron absorption and deposition in various tissues. Measurements of transferrin saturation and serum ferritin levels can help assess iron overload and guide therapeutic interventions such as phlebotomy (blood removal) to reduce iron levels.

Iron Supplementation

Transferrin-mediated iron transport is also utilized in clinical settings for iron supplementation. Iron-deficient individuals may receive oral or intravenous iron supplements. These supplements provide additional iron that can bind to transferrin and be transported to cells, replenishing iron stores and improving overall iron status.


Transferrin plays a critical role in iron transport and metabolism by binding and delivering iron to cells. It facilitates the uptake of iron into cells through interactions with transferrin receptors, allowing iron to be utilized in various cellular processes. Transferrin also contributes to the regulation of iron metabolism through its interaction with hepcidin, helping to maintain iron homeostasis. Understanding the role of transferrin in iron transport and metabolism provides insights into the complex mechanisms involved in iron regulation and has important clinical applications in the diagnosis and treatment of iron-related disorders.