Skip to main content
Chemistry LibreTexts

4.2: Polypeptides in Nature: Oxygen Transport by the Proteins Myoglobin and Hemoglobin

  • Page ID
  • Oxygen Transport

    Many microorganisms and most animals obtain energy by respiration, the oxidation of organic or inorganic molecules by O2. At 25°C, however, the concentration of dissolved oxygen in water in contact with air is only about 0.25 mM. Because of their high surface area-to-volume ratio, aerobic microorganisms can obtain enough oxygen for respiration by passive diffusion of O2 through the cell membrane. As the size of an organism increases, however, its volume increases much more rapidly than its surface area, and the need for oxygen depends on its volume. Consequently, as a multicellular organism grows larger, its need for O2 rapidly outstrips the supply available through diffusion. Unless a transport system is available to provide an adequate supply of oxygen for the interior cells, organisms that contain more than a few cells cannot exist. In addition, O2 is such a powerful oxidant that the oxidation reactions used to obtain metabolic energy must be carefully controlled to avoid releasing so much heat that the water in the cell boils. Consequently, in higher-level organisms, the respiratory apparatus is located in internal compartments called mitochondria, which are the power plants of a cell. Oxygen must therefore be transported not only to a cell but also to the proper compartment within a cell.

    Three different chemical solutions to the problem of oxygen transport have developed independently in the course of evolution, as indicated in Table 26.8.13. Mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and some insects use a heme protein called hemoglobin to transport oxygen from the lungs to the cells, and they use a related protein called myoglobin to temporarily store oxygen in the tissues. Several classes of invertebrates, including marine worms, use an iron-containing protein called hemerythrin to transport oxygen, whereas other classes of invertebrates (arthropods and mollusks) use a copper-containing protein called hemocyanin. Despite the presence of the hem- prefix, hemerythrin and hemocyanin do not contain a metal–porphyrin complex.

    Table 26.8.13 Some Properties of the Three Classes of Oxygen-Transport Proteins

    Protein Source M per Subunit M per O2 Bound Color (deoxy form) Color (oxy form)
    hemoglobin mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, some insects 1 Fe 1 Fe red-purple red
    hemerythrin marine worms 2 Fe 2 Fe colorless red
    hemocyanin mollusks, crustaceans, spiders 2 Cu 2 Cu colorless blue

    Myoglobin and Hemoglobin

    Myoglobin is a relatively small protein that contains 150 amino acids. The functional unit of myoglobin is an iron–porphyrin complex that is embedded in the protein (Figure 26.8.1). In myoglobin, the heme iron is five-coordinate, with only a single histidine imidazole ligand from the protein (called the proximal histidine because it is near the iron) in addition to the four nitrogen atoms of the porphyrin. A second histidine imidazole (the distal histidine because it is more distant from the iron) is located on the other side of the heme group, too far from the iron to be bonded to it. Consequently, the iron atom has a vacant coordination site, which is where O2 binds.

    Figure 26.8.1: The Structure of Deoxymyoglobin, Showing the Heme Group. The iron in deoxymyoglobin is five-coordinate, with one histidine imidazole ligand from the protein. Oxygen binds at the vacant site on iron.

    In the ferrous form (deoxymyoglobin), the iron is five-coordinate and high spin. Because high-spin Fe2+ is too large to fit into the “hole” in the center of the porphyrin, it is about 60 pm above the plane of the porphyrin. When O2 binds to deoxymyoglobin to form oxymyoglobin, the iron is converted from five-coordinate (high spin) to six-coordinate (low spin; Figure 26.8.2). Because low-spin Fe2+ and Fe3+ are smaller than high-spin Fe2+, the iron atom moves into the plane of the porphyrin ring to form an octahedral complex. The O2 pressure at which half of the molecules in a solution of myoglobin are bound to O2 (P1/2) is about 1 mm Hg (1.3 × 10−3 atm).

    affinity unchanged, which is important because carbon monoxide is produced continuously in the body by degradation of the porphyrin ligand (even in nonsmokers). Under normal conditions, CO occupies approximately 1% of the heme sites in hemoglobin and myoglobin. If the affinity of hemoglobin and myoglobin for CO were 100 times greater (due to the absence of the distal histidine), essentially 100% of the heme sites would be occupied by CO, and no oxygen could be transported to the tissues. Severe carbon-monoxide poisoning, which is frequently fatal, has exactly the same effect. Thus the primary function of the distal histidine appears to be to decrease the CO affinity of hemoglobin and myoglobin to avoid self-poisoning by CO.

    • Was this article helpful?