Porphyrins are heterocyclic macrocycles, consisting of four pyrrole subunits (tetrapyrrole) linked by four methine (=CH-) bridges. The extensive conjugated porphyrin macrocycle is chromatic and the name itself, porphyrin, is derived from the Greek word for purple. The aromatic character of porphyrins can be seen by NMR spectroscopy.
Porphyrins readily combine with metals by coordinating them in the central cavity. Iron (heme) and magnesium (chlorophyll) are two well known examples although zinc, copper, nickel and cobalt form other known metal-containing phorphyrins. A porphyrin which has no metal in the cavity is called a free base.
Some iron-containing porphyrins are called hemes (heme-containing proteins or hemoproteins) and these are found extensively in nature ie. hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is quantitatively the most important hemoprotein. The hemoglobin iron is the transfer site of oxygen and carries it in the blood all round the body for cell respiration. Other examples are cytochromes present in mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum which takes part in electron transfer events, catalase and peroxidase whic protect the body against the oxidant hydrogen peroxide and tryptophan oxygenase which is present in intermediary metabolism. Hemoproteins are synthesized in all mammalian cells and the major sites are erythropoietic tissue and the liver.
The processes by which heme is synthesized, transported, and metabolized are a critical part of human iron metabolism (Severance and Hamze 2009); here the core processes of heme biosynthesis and catabolism have been annotated.