, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 99-112

Old Iron, Young Copper: from Mars to Venus

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Abstract

Iron and copper are metals which play an important role in the living world. From a brief consideration of their chemistry and biochemistry we conclude that the early chemistry of life used water soluble ferrous iron while copper was in the water-insoluble Cu(I) state as highly insoluble sulphides. The advent of oxygen was a catastrophic event for most living organisms, and can be considered to be the first general irreversible pollution of the earth. In contrast to the oxidation of iron and its loss of bioavailability as insoluble Fe(III), the oxidation of insoluble Cu(I) led to soluble Cu(II). A new iron biochemistry became possible after the advent of oxygen, with the development of chelators of Fe(III), which rendered iron once again accessible, and with the control of the potential toxicity of iron by its storage in a water soluble, non-toxic, bio-available storage protein (ferritin). Biology also discovered that whereas enzymes involved in anaerobic metabolism were designed to operate in the lower portion of the redox spectrum, the arrival of dioxygen created the need for a new redox active metal which could attain higher redox potentials. Copper, now bioavailable, was ideally suited to exploit the oxidizing power of dioxygen. The arrival of copper also coincided with the development of multicellular organisms which had extracellular cross-linked matrices capable of resisting attack by oxygen free radicals. After the initial `iron age' subsequent evolution moved, not towards a `copper age', but rather to an `iron-copper' age. In the second part of the review, this symbiosis of iron and copper is examined in yeast. We then briefly consider iron and copper metabolism in mammals, before looking at iron-copper interactions in mammals, particularly man, and conclude with the reflection that, as in Greek and Roman mythology, a better understanding of the potentially positive interactions between Mars (iron) and Venus (copper) can only be to the advantage of our species.