Human serum albumin facilitates heme-iron utilization by fungi

Mariel Pinsky, Udita Roy, Shilat Moshe, Ziva Weissman, Daniel Kornitzer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A large portion of biological iron is found in the form of an iron-protoporphyrin IX complex, or heme. In the human host environment, which is ex-ceptionally poor in free iron, heme iron, particularly from hemoglobin, constitutes a major source of iron for invading microbial pathogens. Several fungi were shown to utilize free heme, and Candida albicans, a major opportunistic pathogen, is able both to capture free heme and to extract heme from hemoglobin using a network of extracellular hemophores. Human serum albumin (HSA) is the most abundant host heme-scavenging protein. Tight binding of heme by HSA restricts its toxic chemical reactivity and could diminish its availability as an iron source for pathogenic microbes. We found, however, that rather than inhibiting heme utilization, HSA greatly increases availability of heme as an iron source for C. albicans and other fungi. In contrast, hemopexin, a low-abundance but high-affinity heme-scavenging serum protein, does inhibit heme utilization by C. albicans. However, inhibition by hemopexin is mitigated in the presence of HSA. Utilization of albumin-bound heme requires the same hemophore cascade as that which mediates hemoglobin-iron utili-zation. Accordingly, we found that the C. albicans hemophores are able to extract heme bound to HSA in vitro. Since many common drugs are known to bind to HSA, we tested whether they could interfere with heme-iron utilization. We show that utilization of albumin-bound heme by C. albicans can be inhibited by the anti-inflammatory drugs naproxen and salicylic acid. IMPORTANCE Heme constitutes a major iron source for microorganisms and particularly for pathogenic microbes; to overcome the iron scarcity in the animal host, many pathogenic bacteria and fungi have developed systems to extract and take up heme from host proteins such as hemoglobin. Microbial heme uptake mechanisms are usually studied using growth media containing free heme or hemoglobin as a sole iron source. However, the animal host contains heme-scavenging proteins that could prevent this uptake. In the human host in particular, the most abundant serum heme-binding protein is albumin. Surprisingly, however, we found that in the case of fungi of the Candida species family, albumin promoted rather than pre-vented heme utilization. Albumin thus constitutes a human-specific factor that can affect heme-iron utilization and could serve as target for preventing heme-iron utilization by fungal pathogens. As a proof of principle, we identify two drugs that can inhibit albumin-stimulated heme utilization.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00607-20
Issue number2
StatePublished - 21 Apr 2020


  • Biological Transport
  • Candida albicans
  • Candida albicans/genetics
  • Fungi/metabolism
  • Heme transport
  • Heme/metabolism
  • Hemoglobins/metabolism
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions
  • Humans
  • Iron acquisition
  • Iron/metabolism
  • Mutation
  • Mycology
  • Protein Binding
  • Serum Albumin, Human/metabolism
  • heme transport
  • iron acquisition
  • mycology

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Virology
  • Microbiology


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