2003 Volume 200 Issue 4 Pages 167-186
Heme must be synthesized and degraded within an individual nucleated cell. Heme degradation is catalyzed by the two isozymes of heme oxygenase, heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1) and HO-2, eventually yielding biliverdin-/bilirubin, CO, and iron. These products possess important physiological roles but are potentially toxic to cells. Characteristically, human HO-1 contains no Cys residues, whereas HO-2 contains the potential heme-binding motifs of the Cys-Pro dipeptide. Expression of HO-1 is inducible or repressible, depending on cell types or cellular microenvironments, but expression levels of HO-2 are fairly constant. Thus, the main regulation of heme catabolism is a problem of the balance between induction and repression of HO-1. Notably, HO-1 expression is induced by heme in all mammalian cells examined, but is repressed by hypoxia in certain types of cultured human cells. The recent discovery of Bach1 as a heme-regulated and hypoxia-inducible repressor for transcription of the HO-I gene has provided a missing link in the feedback control of heme catabolism. On the other hand, the human HO-1 gene promoter contains the (GT)n repeat polymorphism and a single nucleotide polymorphism (−413A→T), both of which may contribute to fine-tuning of the transcription. Importantly, long (GT)n alleles are associated with susceptibility to smoking-induced emphysema or coronary artery disease, but may provide with resistance to cerebral malaria. The latter finding suggests a novel therapeutic strategy with inhibitors of HO-1 for the treatment of cerebral malaria. We discuss the potential regulatory role of Bach1 and HO-2 in heme catabolism and update the understanding of the regulation of HO-1 expression.