Mammalian cells accumulate iron from ferric citrate or ferric nitrilotriacetate through the activity of a transferrin-independent iron transport system [Sturrock, Alexander, Lamb, Craven and Kaplan (1990) J. Biol. Chem. 265, 3139-3145]. The uptake system might recognize and transport ferric-anion complexes, or cells may reduce ferric iron at the surface and then transport ferrous iron. To distinguish between these possibilities we exposed cells to either [59Fe]ferric citrate or ferric [14C]citrate and determined whether accumulation of iron was accompanied by the obligatory accumulation of citrate. In HeLa cells and human skin fibroblasts the rate of accumulation of iron was three to five times greater than that of citrate. Incubation of fibroblasts with ferric citrate or ferric ammonium citrate resulted in an enhanced accumulation of iron and citrate; the molar ratio of accumulation approaching unity. A similar rate of citrate accumulation, however, was observed when ferric citrate-incubated cells were exposed to [14C]citrate alone. Further studies demonstrated the independence of iron and citrate accumulation: addition of unlabelled citrate to cells decreased the uptake of labelled citrate without affecting the accumulation of 59Fe; iron uptake was decreased by the addition of ferrous chelators whereas the uptake of citrate was unaffected; reduction of ferric iron by ascorbate increased the uptake of iron but had no effect on the uptake of citrate. When HeLa cells were depleted of calcium, iron uptake decreased, but there was little effect on citrate uptake. These results indicate that transport of iron does not require the obligatory transport of citrate and vice versa. The mammalian transferrin-independent iron transport system appears functionally similar to iron transport systems in both the bacterial and plant kingdoms which require the activities of both a surface reductase and a ferrous metal transporter.

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