Hemoglobin and the Heme Group:

Metal Complexes in the Blood for Oxygen Transport

Inorganic Synthesis Experiment

Authors: Rachel Casiday and Regina Frey
Department of Chemistry, Washington University
St. Louis, MO 63130

Key Concepts:

Introduction to the Chemistry and Physiology of Blood

Our bodies consist of cells that are organized into many specialized organs and tissues to perform a variety of functions. Our stomachs digest food so that the nutrients contained in the food can be distributed to the rest of the body. Our lungs take in the oxygen needed by the body from the air and release carbon dioxide as a waste product. Our muscles allow the body to move. Our brains coordinate all of these (and many other) activities of the body. These processes are based upon many different chemical reactions, and the sum total of the chemical reactions in the body is known as the body's metabolism. The metabolism includes the reactions needed for normal everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, and studying. When we exercise, the metabolism increases to allow our body to cope with the increased demands and stress of exercising. All of our specialized body parts are united by their fundamental need for a particular chemical environment that will enable the body's metabolic reactions. This environment must include a supply of nutrients (e.g., sugars and vitamins, to supply the building blocks for cells and enable biochemical reactions) and oxygen (to provide energy for the body; the process of using oxygen to make the body's energy supply is described in the Chem 152 tutorial, "Energy for the Body: Oxidative Phosphorylation"), and the ability to eliminate the waste products of the body's metabolic activities. This environment is provided by bathing our body's cells in blood.

Blood is part of the body's circulatory system, and thus is continually being pumped through our bodies as long as we are alive. The blood distributes oxygen and nutrients to the many different cells in the body, carries CO2 generated by the cells to the lungs for exhalation, and carries other waste products to the kidneys and liver for processing and elimination. Many finely tuned chemical processes occur in the blood to allow the blood to carry out all of these functions and provide for the needs of the body. The tutorials in Chem 151 and 152 will describe several of these vital chemical processes, such as the release of iron in controlled amounts to the blood ("Iron Use and Storage in the Body: Ferritin and Molecular Representations" tutorial), removal of waste products from the blood ("Maintaining the Body's Chemistry: Dialysis in the Kidneys" tutorial), and the regulation of the levels of CO2 and H+ to control the pH of the blood ("Blood, Sweat, and Buffers: pH Regulation During Exercise" tutorial). In this tutorial, we will study one of the most important functions of blood, the transport of oxygen from the lungs to the other cells of the body (e.g., muscle cells) that perform metabolic functions.

Oxygen Transport via Metal Complexes

An adult at rest consumes the equivalent of 250 ml of pure oxygen per minute. This oxygen is used to provide energy for all the tissues and organs of the body, even when the body is at rest. The body's oxygen needs increase dramatically during exercise or other strenuous activities. The oxygen is carried in the blood from the lungs to the tissues where it is consumed. However, only about 1.5% of the oxygen transported in the blood is dissolved directly in the blood plasma. Transporting the large amount of oxygen required by the body, and allowing it to leave the blood when it reaches the tissues that demand the most oxygen, require a more sophisticated mechanism than simply dissolving the gas in the blood. To meet this challenge, the body is equipped with a finely-tuned transport system that centers on the metal complex heme.

Metal Complexes in the Body

The ability of metal ions to coordinate with (bind) and then release ligands in some processes, and to oxidize and reduce in other processes makes them ideal for use in biological systems. The most common metal used in the body is iron, and it plays a central role in almost all living cells. For example, iron complexes are used in the transport of oxygen in the blood and tissues.

Metal-ion complexes consist of a metal ion that is bonded via "coordinate-covalent bonds" (Figure 1) to a small number of anions or neutral molecules called ligands. For example the ammonia (NH3) ligand used in this experiment is a monodentate ligand; i.e., each monodentate ligand in a metal-ion complex possesses a single electron-pair-donor atom and occupies only one site in the coordination sphere of a metal ion. Some ligands have two or more electron-pair-donor atoms that can simultaneously coordinate to a metal ion and occupy two or more coordination sites; these ligands are called polydentate ligands. They are also known as chelating agents (from the Greek word meaning "claw"), because they appear to grasp the metal ion between two or more electron-pair-donor atoms. The coordination number for a metal refers to the total number of occupied coordination sites around the central metal ion (i.e., the total number of metal-ligand bonds in the complex).

Figure 1

You have already learned that a covalent bond forms when electrons are shared between atoms. A coordinate-covalent bond (represented by a green arrow in this diagram) forms when both of the shared electrons come from the same atom, called the donor atom (blue).

An anion or molecule containing the donor atom is known as a ligand. The top illustration shows a coordinate-covalent bond between a metal ion (e.g., Fe, shown in red) and a monodentate ligand (a ligand that contains only one electron-pair-donor atom, shown in light blue). The bottom illustration shows a metal ion with coordinate-covalent bonds to a bidentate ligand (a ligand that contains two donor atoms simultaneously coordinated to the metal ion, shown in yellow).

Oxygen-Carrying Protein in the Blood: Hemoglobin

Hemoglobin is the protein that transports oxygen (O2) in human blood from the lungs to the tissues of the body. Proteins are formed by the linking of amino acids into polypeptide chains. An individual amino acid in a protein is known as a "residue." The arrangement and interactions of the amino-acid residues within the protein determine the protein's shape and contribute substantially to its function. Hemoglobin is a globular protein (i.e., folded into a compact, nearly spherical shape) and consists of four subunits, as shown in Figure 2. Each protein subunit is an individual molecule that joins to its neighboring subunits through intermolecular interactions. (These subunits are also known as peptide chains. You will learn more about the nature of amino acids and peptide subunits in the tutorial entitled, "Iron Use and Storage in the Body: Ferritin and Molecular Representations".)

Figure 2

This is a molecular model of hemoglobin with the subunits displayed in the ribbon representation. A ribbon representation traces the backbone atoms of a protein and is often used to represent its three-dimensional structure. The four heme groups are displayed in the ball-and-stick representation.

Note: The coordinates for the hemoglobin protein (in this and subsequent molecular representations of all or part of the protein) were determined using x-ray crystallography, and the image was rendered using SwissPDB Viewer and POV-Ray (see References).

Note: To view the molecule interactively, please use Jmol, and click on the button to the left.

To understand the oxygen-binding properties of hemoglobin, we will focus briefly on the structure of the protein and the metal complexes embedded in it.

The Protein Subunit

Each subunit in Figure 2 contains regions with a coiled shape; many of the amino acids that make up the polypeptide chain interact to form this particular structure, called an alpha helix. In an alpha helix (Figure 3), each amino acid is "hydrogen-bonded" to the amino acid that is four residues ahead of it in the chain. In hemoglobin, the hydrogen-bonding interaction occurs between the H of an -NH group and the O of a -CO group of the polypeptide backbone chain; the amino-acid side chains extend outward from the backbone of the helix. Approximately 75% of the amino-acid composition of hemoglobin adopts an alpha-helical structure. Another common structural motif is the beta-pleated sheet, in which amino acids line up in straight parallel rows.

Figure 3

This is a molecular model of the alpha-helix structure in a subunit of hemoglobin. The blue strands are a ribbon representation to emphasize the helical structure. The green dotted lines show the hydrogen bonding between the -NH and -CO functional groups.

Note: To view the molecule interactively, please use Jmol, and click on the button above.

Please click on the pink button above to view a QuickTime movie showing a rotation of the alpha-helix structure shown in Figure 3.

Click the blue button below to download QuickTime 4.0 to view the movie.

The Heme Group

In hemoglobin, each subunit contains a heme group, which is displayed using the ball-and-stick representation in Figure 2. Each heme group contains an iron atom that is able to bind to one oxygen (O2) molecule. Therefore, each hemoglobin protein can bind four oxygen molecules.

One of the most important classes of chelating agents in nature are the porphyrins. A porphyrin molecule can coordinate to a metal using the four nitrogen atoms as electron-pair donors, and hence is a polydentate ligand (see Figure 1). Heme is a porphyrin that is coordinated with Fe(II) and is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4

On the left is a three-dimensional molecular model of heme coordinated to the histidine residue (a monodentate ligand, see Figure 1) of the hemoglobin protein. On the right is a two-dimensional drawing of heme coordinated to the histidine residue, which is part of the hemoglobin protein. In this figure, the protein is deoxygenated; i.e., there is no oxygen molecule bound to the heme group.

Note: The coordinate-covalent bonds between the central iron atom and the nitrogens from the porphyrin are gold; the coordinate-covalent bond between the central iron atom and the histidine residue is green. In the three-dimensional model, the carbon atoms are are gray, the iron atom is dark red, the nitrogen atoms are dark blue, and the oxygen atoms are light red. The rest of the hemoglobin protein is purple.

Note: To view the molecule interactively, please use Jmol, and click on the button to the left.

In the body, the iron in the heme is coordinated to the four nitrogen atoms of the porphyrin and also to a nitrogen atom from a histidine residue (one of the amino-acid residues in hemoglobin) of the hemoglobin protein (see Figure 4). The sixth position (coordination site) around the iron of the heme is occupied by O2 when the hemoglobin protein is oxygenated.

Questions on the Oxygen-Carrying Protein in the Blood: Hemoglobin

Conformational Changes Upon Binding of Oxygen

Careful examination of Figure 4 shows that the heme group is nonplanar when it is not bound to oxygen; the iron atom is pulled out of the plane of the porphyrin, toward the histidine residue to which it is attached. This nonplanar configuration is characteristic of the deoxygenated heme group, and is commonly referred to as a "domed" shape. The valence electrons in the atoms surrounding iron in the heme group and the valence electrons in the histidine residue form "clouds" of electron density. (Electron density refers to the probability of finding an electron in a region of space.) Because electrons repel one another, the regions occupied by the valence electrons in the heme group and the histidine residue are pushed apart. Hence, the porphyrin adopts the domed (nonplanar) configuration and the Fe is out of the plane of the porphyrin ring (Figure 5, left). However, when the Fe in the heme group binds to an oxygen molecule, the porphyrin ring adopts a planar configuration and hence the Fe lies in the plane of the porphyrin ring (Figure 5, right).

Figure 5

On the left is a schematic diagram showing representations of electron-density clouds of the deoxygenated heme group (pink) and the attached histidine residue (light blue). These regions of electron density push one another apart, and the iron atom in the center is drawn out of the plane. (The nonplanar shape of the heme group is represented by the bent line.)

On the right is a schematic diagram showing representations of electron-density clouds of the oxygenated heme group (pink), the attached histidine residue (light blue), and the attached oxygen molecule (gray). The oxygenated heme assumes a planar configuration, and the central iron atom occupies a space in the plane of the heme group (depicted by a straight red line).

The shape change in the heme group has important implications for the rest of the hemoglobin protein, as well. When the iron atom moves into the porphyrin plane upon oxygenation, the histidine residue to which the iron atom is attached is drawn closer to the heme group. This movement of the histidine residue then shifts the position of other amino acids that are near the histidine (Figure 6). When the amino acids in a protein are shifted in this manner (by the oxygenation of one of the heme groups in the protein), the structure of the interfaces between the four subunits is altered. Hence, when a single heme group in the hemoglobin protein becomes oxygenated, the whole protein changes its shape. In the new shape, it is easier for the other three heme groups to become oxygenated. Thus, the binding of one molecule of O2 to hemoglobin enhances the ability of hemoglobin to bind more O2 molecules. This property of hemoglobin is known as "cooperative binding."

Figure 6

This figure shows the heme group and a portion of the hemoglobin protein that is directly attached to the heme. When hemoglobin is deoxygenated (left), the heme group adopts a domed configuration. When hemoglobin is oxygenated (right), the heme group adopts a planar configuration. As shown in the figure, the conformational change in the heme group causes the protein to change its conformation, as well.

Please click on the pink button below to view a QuickTime movie showing how the amino acid residues near the heme group in hemoglobin shift as the heme group converts between the nonplanar (domed) and the planar conformation by binding and releasing a molecule of O2. Click the blue button below to download QuickTime 4.0 to view the movie.

Questions on Conformational Changes Upon Binding of Oxygen:

Spectroscopy and the Color of Blood

The changes that occur in blood upon oxygenation and deoxygenation are visible not only at the microscopic level, as detailed above, but also at the macroscopic level. Clinicians have long noted that blood in the systemic arteries (traveling from the heart to the oxygen-using cells of the body) is red-colored, while blood in the systemic veins (traveling from the oxygen-using cells back to the heart) is blue-colored (see Figure 7). The blood in the systemic arteries is oxygen-rich; this blood has just traveled from the lungs (where it picked up oxygen inhaled from the air) to the heart, and then is pumped throughout the body to deliver its oxygen to the body's cells. The blood in the systemic veins, on the other hand, is oxygen-poor; it has unloaded its oxygen to the body's cells (exchanging the O2 for CO2, as described below), and must now return to the lungs to replenish the supply of oxygen. Hence, a simple macroscopic observation, i.e., noting the color of the blood, can tell us whether the blood is oxygenated or deoxygenated.

What causes this color change in the blood? We know that the shape of the heme group and the hemoglobin protein change, depending on whether hemoglobin is oxygenated or deoxygenated. The two conformations must have different light-absorbing properties. The oxygenated conformation of hemoglobin must absorb light in the blue-green range, and reflect red light, to account for the red appearance of oxygenated blood. The deoxygenated conformation of hemoglobin must absorb light in the orange range, and reflect blue light, to account for the bluish appearance of deoxygenated blood. We could use a spectrophotometer to examine a dilute solution of blood and determine the wavelength of light absorbed by each conformation. For an approximate prediction of the wavelength of light absorbed and for the colors of light absorbed for a given complementary color, a table such as Table 1 in the introduction to the Experiment ("Relations Between Electronic Transition Energy and Color") could be used.

Questions on Spectroscopy and the Color of Blood

  1. Do you expect the wavelength of maximum absorption (lmax) to be the same or different for the two solutions? If lmax is different for the two solutions, indicate which solution will have a higher lmax. Briefly, explain your reasoning.
  2. Do you expect the absorbance (A) at lmax to be the same or different for the two solutions? If the absorbance is different for the two solutions, indicate which solution will have a higher absorbance. Briefly, explain your reasoning.

The Effect of CO2 and H+ on O2 Binding

In 1904, Christian Bohr discovered that increased concentrations of CO2 and H+ promote the release of O2 from hemoglobin in the blood. This phenomenon, known as the Bohr effect, is a highly adaptive feature of the body's blood-gas exchange mechanism. The blood that is pumped from the heart to the body tissues and organs (other than the lungs) is rich in oxygen (Figure 7). These tissues require oxygen for their metabolic activities (e.g., muscle contraction). Hence, it is necessary for oxygen to remain bound to hemoglobin as the blood travels through the arteries (so that it can be carried to the tissues), but be easily removable when the blood passes through the capillaries feeding the body tissues. CO2 and H+ are produced from metabolic activities of the body, and so the concentration of these species is high in the metabolically active tissues of the body. Thus, the tissues that perform the most metabolic activity (and therefore require the largest amount of O2) produce large quantities of CO2 and H+, facilitating the release of O2 from the blood where the O2 is most needed. In the lungs, the reverse effect occurs: high concentrations of O2 cause the release of CO2 from hemoglobin.

  1. Blood rich in carbon dioxide is pumped from the heart into the lungs through the pulmonary arteries. (Arteries are blood vessels carrying blood away from the heart; veins are blood vessels carrying blood to the heart.)
  2. In the lungs, CO2 in the blood is exchanged for O2.
  3. The oxygen-rich blood is carried back to the heart through the pulmonary veins.
  1. This oxygen-rich blood is then pumped from the heart to the many tissues and organs of the body, through the systemic arteries.
  2. In the tissues, the arteries narrow to tiny capillaries. Here, O2 in the blood is exchanged for CO2.
  3. The capillaries widen into the systemic veins, which carry the carbon-dioxide-rich blood back to the heart.

Figure 7

This is a schematic diagram of the flow of blood through the circulatory system, showing the sites of O2/CO2 exchange in the body.

Note: The components of this diagram are not drawn to scale.

How do CO2 and H+ promote the release of O2 from hemoglobin? These species help form interactions between amino-acid residues at the interfaces of the four subunits in hemoglobin.  These interactions are called "salt bridges," because they are between positively-charged and negatively-charged amino-acid residues on different subunits of the same protein (Figure 8).  When "salt bridges" form, the subunits are held in a position that "tugs on" the histidine that is attached to the heme iron. (See Figure 5.)  This favors the domed configuration, which is the deoxygenated form of hemoglobin. 

Figure 8

On the left is a schematic diagram of the interface of two subunits of the deoxygenated hemoglobin protein. In the presence of CO2 and H+ (e.g., in the muscles), charged groups are formed on the amino acid residues lining the subunit interface. These charged groups are held together by ionic interactions, forming "salt bridges" between the two subunits, and stabilizing the deoxygenated form of hemoglobin.

When blood passes through the alveolar capillaries of the lungs, CO2 and H+ are removed from the hemoglobin, and the oxygenated configuration is favored (right).

Note: The components of this diagram are not drawn to scale.

When the concentration of protons (H+) is low (pH 9), positive charges do not form on the residues at the subunit interfaces, so the salt bridges cannot form (right image in Figure 8). However, at pH 7, histidine residues at the subunit interfaces (not the histidine residues that bind the heme groups) can accept an additional proton (H+), and hence become positively charged (Equation 1). When salt bridges form by the interaction of these interfacial histidine residues and nearby negatively-charged amino-acid residues, the deoxygenated hemoglobin structure is favored, and oxygen is released (left image in Figure 8).


The number of negatively-charged residues in the salt bridges is increased in the presence of carbon dioxide. CO2 binds to the amino (-NH2) group of certain amino acid residues at the subunit interfaces to produce a negatively-charged group (-NHCOO-) on the residue (Equation 2). This negatively-charged group can form salt bridges with the positive charges on the protonated histidines described above. The H+ produced by Equation 2 can also be accepted by histidine residues at the subunit interfaces (via Equation 1).


Thus, hemoglobin's biological function is regulated by the changing of the overall protein structure. This structure is altered by the binding or releasing of CO2 and H+ to the interfaces of the subunits in hemoglobin (Figure 8).

Questions on the Bohr Effect:


Blood is an amazing and vitally important part of the body, because it contains many finely-tuned chemical systems that allow it to maintain the chemical environment needed for the body's metabolism. One of the most important functions of blood is delivering O2 to all parts of the body by the hemoglobin protein. O2 is carried in the hemoglobin protein by the heme group. The heme group (a component of the hemoglobin protein) is a metal complex, with iron as the central metal atom, that can bind or release molecular oxygen. Both the hemoglobin protein and the heme group undergo conformational changes upon oxygenation and deoxygenation. When one heme group becomes oxygenated, the shape of hemoglobin changes in such a way as to make it easier for the other three heme groups in the protein to become oxygenated, as well. This feature helps the protein to pick up oxygen more efficiently as the blood travels through the lungs. Hemoglobin also enables the body to eliminate CO2, which is generated as a waste product, via gas exchange in the blood (CO2 exchanged for O2 in the lungs, and O2 exchanged for CO2 in the muscles). The species generated as waste by the oxygen-consuming cells actually help to promote the release of O2 from hemoglobin when it is most needed by the cells. Hence, hemoglobin is a beautiful example of the finely tuned chemical systems that enable the blood to distribute necessary molecules to cells throughout the body, and remove waste products from those cells.

Jmol Files

To view the molecules interactively, please use Jmol. To download the pdb files for viewing and rotating the molecules shown above, please click on the appropriate name below or on the "interactive" button below each molecular-model figure in the text.

Additional Links:

Note: You will use Jmol to view this tutorial. More information regarding Jmol can be found here.


Guex, N. and Peitsch, M.C. Electrophoresis, 1997, 18, 2714-2723. (SwissPDB Viewer) URL: http://www.expasy.ch/spdbv/mainpage.htm.

Ji, X. et al. "Positive and negative cooperativities at subsequent steps of oxygenation regulate the allosteric behavior of multistate sebacylhemoglobin," (1996) Biochemistry, 35, 3418. Hemoglobin PDB coordinates, Brookhaven Protein Data Bank.

Kavanaugh, J.S. et al. "High-resolution x-ray study of deoxyhemoglobin Rothschild 37beta trp->arg: a mutation that creates an intersubunit chloride-binding site," (1992) Biochemistry, 31, 4111. Deoxyhemoglobin PDB coordinates, Brookhaven Protein Data Bank.

Kilmartin, J.V. "Interaction of haemoglobin with protons, CO2, and 2,3-diphosphoglycerate," (1976) Br. Med. Bull., 32, 209.

Persistence of Vision Ray Tracer (POV-Ray). URL: http://www.povray.org.

Royer Jr., W.E. "High-resolution crystallographic analysis of co-operative dimeric hemoglobin," J. Mol. Biol., 235, 657. Oxyhemoglobin PDB coordinates, Brookhaven Protein Data Bank.

Stryer, L. Biochemistry, 4th ed. W.H. Freeman and Co., New York, 1995, p. 154-168.


The authors thank Greg Noelken for creating the Jmol script files.  They also wish to thank Dewey Holten, Michelle Gilbertson, Jody Proctor and Carolyn Herman  for many helpful suggestions in the writing of this tutorial.

The development of this tutorial was supported by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, through the Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education program, Grant HHMI# 71199-502008 to Washington University.

Copyright 1998, Washington University, All Rights Reserved.

This page was updated 9/5/08