Open Access Research article

Systems analysis of iron metabolism: the network of iron pools and fluxes

Tiago JS Lopes1, Tatyana Luganskaja1, Maja Vujić Spasić3, Matthias W Hentze2, Martina U Muckenthaler3, Klaus Schümann4 and Jens G Reich1*

Author Affiliations

1 Max-Delbrueck-Centrum of Molecular Medicine, D-13092 Berlin-Buch, Germany

2 European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Meyerhofstr. 1, D-69117 Heidelberg, Germany

3 Molecular Medicine, University of Heidelberg, Im Neuenheimer Feld 153, D-69120 Heidelberg, Germany

4 Research Center for Nutrition and Food Sciences, Am Forum 5, D-85350 Freising-Weihenstephan, Germany

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BMC Systems Biology 2010, 4:112  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-4-112

Published: 13 August 2010



Every cell of the mammalian organism needs iron as trace element in numerous oxido-reductive processes as well as for transport and storage of oxygen. The very versatility of ionic iron makes it a toxic entity which can catalyze the production of radicals that damage vital membranous and macromolecular assemblies in the cell. The mammalian organism maintains therefore a complex regulatory network of iron uptake, excretion and intra-body distribution. Intracellular regulation in different cell types is intertwined with a global hormonal signalling structure. Iron deficiency as well as excess of iron are frequent and serious human disorders. They can affect every cell, but also the organism as a whole.


Here, we present a kinematic model of the dynamic system of iron pools and fluxes. It is based on ferrokinetic data and chemical measurements in C57BL6 wild-type mice maintained on iron-deficient, iron-adequate, or iron-loaded diet. The tracer iron levels in major tissues and organs (16 compartment) were followed for 28 days. The evaluation resulted in a whole-body model of fractional clearance rates. The analysis permits calculation of absolute flux rates in the steady-state, of iron distribution into different organs, of tracer-accessible pool sizes and of residence times of iron in the different compartments in response to three states of iron-repletion induced by the dietary regime.


This mathematical model presents a comprehensive physiological picture of mice under three different diets with varying iron contents. The quantitative results reflect systemic properties of iron metabolism: dynamic closedness, hierarchy of time scales, switch-over response and dynamics of iron storage in parenchymal organs.

Therefore, we could assess which parameters will change under dietary perturbations and study in quantitative terms when those changes take place.