Bilirubin (formerly referred to as hematoidin) is the yellow breakdown product of normal heme catabolism. Heme is found in hemoglobin, a principal component of red blood cells. Bilirubin is excreted in bile and urine, and elevated levels may indicate certain diseases. It is responsible for the yellow color of bruises, urine, and the yellow discoloration in jaundice.
It has also been found in plants.
Bilirubin consists of an open chain of four pyrrole-like rings (tetrapyrrole). In heme, by contrast, these four rings are connected into a larger ring, called a porphyrin ring.
Bilirubin is very similar to the pigment phycobilin used by certain algae to capture light energy, and to the pigment phytochrome used by plants to sense light. All of these contain an open chain of four pyrrolic rings.
Like these other pigments, some of the double-bonds in bilirubin isomerize when exposed to light. This is used in the phototherapy of jaundiced newborns: the E,E-isomer of bilirubin formed upon light exposure is more soluble than the unilluminated Z,Z-isomer.
Some textbooks and research articles show the incorrect geometric isomer of bilirubin. The naturally occurring isomer is the Z,Z-isomer.
Bilirubin is created by the activity of biliverdin reductase on biliverdin, a green tetrapyrrolic bile pigment which is also a product of heme catabolism. Bilirubin, when oxidized, reverts to become biliverdin once again. This cycle, in addition to the demonstration of the potent antioxidant activity of bilirubin, has led to the hypothesis that bilirubin's main physiologic role is as a cellular antioxidant.
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