Iron has outstanding biological importance as it is required for a wide variety of essential cellular processes and, as such, is a vital nutrient. The element holds this central position by virtue of its facile redox chemistry and the high affinity of both redox states (iron II and iron III) for oxygen. These same properties also render iron toxic when its redox-active chelatable ‘labile’ form exceeds the normal binding capacity of the cell. Indeed, in contrast to iron bound to proteins, the intracellular labile iron (LI) can be potentially toxic especially in the presence of reactive oxygen species (ROS), as it can lead to catalytic formation of oxygen-derived free radicals such as hydroxyl radical that ultimately overwhelm the cellular antioxidant defense mechanisms and lead to cell damage. While intracellular iron homeostasis and body iron balance are tightly regulated to minimise the presence of potentially toxic LI, under conditions of oxidative stress and certain pathologies, iron homeostasis is severely altered. This alteration manifests itself in several ways, one of which is an increase in the intracellular level of potentially harmful LI. For example acute exposure of skin cells to ultraviolet A (UVA, 320–400 nm), the oxidising component of sunlight provokes an immediate increase in the available pool of intracellular LI that appears to play a key role in the increased susceptibility of skin cells to UVA-mediated oxidative membrane damage and necrotic cell death. The main purpose of this overview is to bring together some of the new findings related to intracellular LI distribution and trafficking under physiological and patho-physiological conditions as well as to discuss mechanisms and consequences of oxidant-induced alterations in the intracellular pool of LI, as exemplified by UVA radiation.
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