Superoxide radical ions (O2-) produced by the radiolytic reduction of oxygenated formate solutions and by the xanthine oxidase-catalysed oxidation of xanthine were shown to oxidize the haem groups in oxyhaemoglobin and reduce those in methaemoglobin as in reactions (1) and (2): (see articles) Reaction (1) is suppressed by reaction (8) when [O2-]exceeds 10 muM, but consumes all the O2- generated in oxyhaemoglobin solutions when [oxyhaemoglobin] greater than 160 muM and [O2-]less than 1 nM at pH 7. The yield of reaction (2) is also maximal in methaemoglobin solutions under similar conditions, but less than one haem group is reduced per O2- radical. From studies of (a) the yield of reactions (1) and (2) at variable [haemoglobin] and rates of production of O2-, (b) their suppression by superoxide dismutase, and (c) equilibria observed with mixtures of oxyhaemoglobin and methaemoglobin, it is shown that k1/k2=0.7 +/- 0.2 and k1 = (4 +/- 1) × 10(3) M-1-S-1 At pH7, and k1 and k2 decrease with increasing pH. Concentrations and rate constants are expressed in terms of haem-group concentrations. Concentrations of superoxide dismutase observed in normal erythrocytes are sufficient to suppress reactions (1) and (2), and hence prevent the formation of excessive methaemoglobin.

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