The Hemoglobin


(a) A molecule of hemoglobin contains four globin proteins, each of which is bound to one molecule of the iron-containing pigment heme. (b) A single erythrocyte can contain 300 million hemoglobin molecules, and thus more than 1 billion oxygen molecules.

Hemoglobin is a large molecule made up of proteins and iron. It consists of four folded chains of a protein called globin, designated alpha 1 and 2, and beta 1 and 2. Each of these globin molecules is bound to a red pigment molecule called heme, which contains an ion of iron (Fe2+).

Each iron ion in the heme can bind to one oxygen molecule; therefore, each hemoglobin molecule can transport four oxygen molecules. An individual erythrocyte may contain about 300 million hemoglobin molecules, and therefore can bind to and transport up to 1.2 billion oxygen molecules.

In the lungs, hemoglobin picks up oxygen, which binds to the iron ions, forming oxyhemoglobin. The bright red, oxygenated hemoglobin travels to the body tissues, where it releases some of the oxygen molecules, becoming darker red deoxyhemoglobin, sometimes referred to as reduced hemoglobin. Oxygen release depends on the need for oxygen in the surrounding tissues, so hemoglobin rarely if ever leaves all of its oxygen behind. In the capillaries, carbon dioxide enters the bloodstream. About 76 percent dissolves in the plasma, some of it remaining as dissolved CO2, and the remainder forming bicarbonate ion. About 23–24 percent of it binds to the amino acids in hemoglobin, forming a molecule known as carbaminohemoglobin. From the capillaries, the hemoglobin carries carbon dioxide back to the lungs, where it releases it for exchange of oxygen.

Changes in the levels of RBCs can have significant effects on the body’s ability to effectively deliver oxygen to the tissues. Ineffective hematopoiesis results in insufficient numbers of RBCs and results in one of several forms of anemia. An overproduction of RBCs produces a condition called polycythemia. The primary drawback with polycythemia is not a failure to directly deliver enough oxygen to the tissues, but rather the increased viscosity of the blood, which makes it more difficult for the heart to circulate the blood.

In patients with insufficient hemoglobin, the tissues may not receive sufficient oxygen, resulting in another form of anemia. In determining oxygenation of tissues, the value of greatest interest in healthcare is the percent saturation; that is, the percentage of hemoglobin sites occupied by oxygen in a patient’s blood. Clinically this value is commonly referred to simply as “percent sat.”

Percent saturation is normally monitored using a device known as a pulse oximeter, which is applied to a thin part of the body, typically the tip of the patient’s finger. The device works by sending two different wavelengths of light (one red, the other infrared) through the finger and measuring the light with a photodetector as it exits. Hemoglobin absorbs light differentially depending upon its saturation with oxygen. The machine calibrates the amount of light received by the photodetector against the amount absorbed by the partially oxygenated hemoglobin and presents the data as percent saturation. Normal pulse oximeter readings range from 95–100 percent. Lower percentages reflect hypoxemia, or low blood oxygen. The term hypoxia is more generic and simply refers to low oxygen levels. Oxygen levels are also directly monitored from free oxygen in the plasma typically following an arterial stick. When this method is applied, the amount of oxygen present is expressed in terms of partial pressure of oxygen or simply pO2 and is typically recorded in units of millimeters of mercury, mm Hg.

The kidneys filter about 180 liters (~380 pints) of blood in an average adult each day, or about 20 percent of the total resting volume, and thus serve as ideal sites for receptors that determine oxygen saturation. In response to hypoxemia, less oxygen will exit the vessels supplying the kidney, resulting in hypoxia (low oxygen concentration) in the tissue fluid of the kidney where oxygen concentration is actually monitored. Interstitial fibroblasts within the kidney secrete EPO, thereby increasing erythrocyte production and restoring oxygen levels. In a classic negative-feedback loop, as oxygen saturation rises, EPO secretion falls, and vice versa, thereby maintaining homeostasis. Populations dwelling at high elevations, with inherently lower levels of oxygen in the atmosphere, naturally maintain a hematocrit higher than people living at sea level. Consequently, people traveling to high elevations may experience symptoms of hypoxemia, such as fatigue, headache, and shortness of breath, for a few days after their arrival. In response to the hypoxemia, the kidneys secrete EPO to step up the production of erythrocytes until homeostasis is achieved once again. To avoid the symptoms of hypoxemia, or altitude sickness, mountain climbers typically rest for several days to a week or more at a series of camps situated at increasing elevations to allow EPO levels and, consequently, erythrocyte counts to rise. When climbing the tallest peaks, such as Mt. Everest and K2 in the Himalayas, many mountain climbers rely upon bottled oxygen as they near the summit.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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