The heme oxygenase (HO) system is essential for heme and iron homeostasis and necessary for adaptation to cell stress. HO degrades heme to biliverdin (BV), carbon monoxide (CO) and ferrous iron. Although mostly beneficial, the HO reaction can also produce deleterious effects, predominantly attributed to excessive product formation. Underrated so far is, however, that HO may exert effects additionally via modulation of the cellular heme levels. Heme, besides being an often-quoted generator of oxidative stress, plays also an important role as a signaling molecule. Heme controls the anti-oxidative defense, circadian rhythms, activity of ion channels, glucose utilization, erythropoiesis, and macrophage function. This broad spectrum of effects depends on its interaction with proteins ranging from transcription factors to enzymes. In degrading heme, HO has the potential to exert effects also via modulation of heme-mediated pathways. In this review, we will discuss the multitude of pathways regulated by heme to enlarge the view on HO and its role in cell physiology. We will further highlight the contribution of HO to pathophysiology, which results from a dysregulated balance between heme and the degradation products formed by HO.
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