The Fascinating Process of Heme Degradation

The human body is a marvel, teeming with intricately choreographed processes and pathways that ensure our survival. Among these pathways is heme degradation, a vital mechanism responsible for breaking down heme – the molecule at the heart of oxygen transport.

This article will delve deep into this process, unraveling its stages, significance, and the captivating chemistry behind it. So, whether you’re a seasoned biologist or just a curious soul, strap in for an illuminating ride into the world of heme metabolism.

Heme: A Quick Overview

Heme is not just any molecule; it’s the very essence of our red blood cells. Critical for oxygen transport, heme is the small-molecule component of hemoglobin. Its breakdown and excretion is a symphony of events, where around 80% originates from senescent erythrocytes – those that have served us loyally for about 3 months.

Another 20% arises from the young erythrocytes in the bone marrow, which, for some reason, don’t make it to full maturity. A trivial amount also stems from other cellular types.

The Journey to Bilirubin

1. Bilirubin Production

Old erythrocytes retire mainly in the spleen and liver, where they meet their end at the hands of macrophages. Once inside these cells, the heme undergoes a transformative journey. It’s first converted to bilirubin through a two-step dance of enzymes, with a pitstop as “Biliverdin“.

This sequence results in the oxidation and opening of the heme ring, leaving us with bilirubin. This freshly minted bilirubin, yet to undergo any chemical alteration, is termed “unconjugated” and is promptly dispatched into the plasma by macrophages.

2. Homeward Bound: To the Liver


Unconjugated bilirubin is not one to mix with water. So, how does it travel in the plasma? Bound closely, albeit non-covalently, to albumin. This tight bond ensures that you’ll never find unconjugated bilirubin in your urine. The journey continues until they reach the liver, where hepatocytes greet and separate the bilirubin from its albumin escort, welcoming it for further transformation.

3. The Conjugation Chronicles

Within these liver cells, a unique enzyme named UGT1A1 takes center stage. It diligently attaches either one or two glucuronic acid molecules to the bilirubin, creating bilirubin mono- or di-glucuronide. These new entities, adorned with glucuronic acid, are called “Conjugated Bilirubin” and have gained an affinity for water.

4. Biliary Roadtrip

Bile Caniculi

Equipped with its water-loving traits, the conjugated bilirubin is actively transported into the bile canaliculi by hepatocytes. It’s a fascinating process, requiring energy and precision. The bilirubin, now a part of bile, embarks on a trip through the biliary tree, ultimately ending up in the duodenum.

The Gut Saga: From Bilirubin to Urobilinogens

In the gut, conjugated bilirubin encounters the bustling community of the GI bacterial flora. They are quick to convert most of the bilirubin into colorless “Urobilinogen” and a minor portion into the brown “Urobilin”.

The story takes another twist as about 90% of urobilinogen decides to exit with the feces. The remaining fraction is reabsorbed and sent back into the bloodstream, only to be snatched once again by hepatocytes and re-excreted in the bile. Urobilin largely follows suit, adding to the feces’ brown hue. However, a minuscule amount is reabsorbed and finds its way to the kidneys, imparting a signature yellowish tint to our urine.

In Conclusion

Heme degradation is a testament to the body’s genius. It’s a cascading sequence of events, ensuring that every molecule is either reused or safely expelled. From heme’s intricate conversion to bilirubin and its eventual transformation into urobilinogens, each step exemplifies nature’s grand design in maintaining balance and health.