ConspectusThe eukaryotic heme oxygenases (HOs) (E.C. 126.96.36.199) convert heme to biliverdin, iron, and carbon monoxide (CO) in three successive oxygenation steps. Pathogenic bacteria require iron for survival and infection. Extracellular heme uptake from the host plays a critical role in iron acquisition and virulence. In the past decade, several HOs required for the release of iron from extracellular heme have been identified in pathogenic bacteria, including Corynebacterium diphtheriae, Neisseriae meningitides, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The bacterial enzymes were shown to be structurally and mechanistically similar to those of the canonical eukaryotic HO enzymes. However, the recent discovery of the structurally and mechanistically distinct noncanonical heme oxygenases of Staphylococcus aureus and Mycobacterium tuberculosis has expanded the reaction manifold of heme degradation. The distinct ferredoxin-like structural fold and extreme heme ruffling are proposed to give rise to the alternate heme degradation products in the S. aureus and M. tuberculosis enzymes. In addition, several "heme-degrading factors" with no structural homology to either class of HOs have recently been reported. The identification of these "heme-degrading proteins" has largely been determined on the basis of in vitro heme degradation assays. Many of these proteins were reported to produce biliverdin, although no extensive characterization of the products was performed. Prior to the characterization of the canonical HO enzymes, the nonenzymatic degradation of heme and heme proteins in the presence of a reductant such as ascorbate or hydrazine, a reaction termed "coupled oxidation", served as a model for biological heme degradation. However, it was recognized that there were important mechanistic differences between the so-called coupled oxidation of heme proteins and enzymatic heme oxygenation. In the coupled oxidation reaction, the final product, verdoheme, can readily be converted to biliverdin under hydrolytic conditions. The differences between heme oxygenation by the canonical and noncanonical HOs and coupled oxidation will be discussed in the context of the stabilization of the reactive FeIII-OOH intermediate and regioselective heme hydroxylation. Thus, in the determination of heme oxygenase activity in vitro, it is important to ensure that the reaction proceeds through successive oxygenation steps. We further suggest that when bacterial heme degradation is being characterized, a systems biology approach combining genetics, mechanistic enzymology, and metabolite profiling should be undertaken.
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