Bilirubin Metabolism

Bilirubin (formerly referred to as hematoidin) is the yellow breakdown product of normal heme catabolism. Heme is formed from hemoglobin, a principal component of red blood cells. Bilirubin is excreted in bile, and its levels are elevated in certain diseases. It is responsible for the yellow color of bruises and the yellow discoloration in jaundice.
Bilirubin is created by the activity of biliverdin reductase on biliverdin. 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.


Erythrocytes (red blood cells) generated in the bone marrow are disposed of in the spleen when they get old or damaged. This releases hemoglobin, which is broken down to heme, as the globin parts are turned into amino acids. The heme is then turned into unconjugated bilirubin in the macrophages of the spleen. This unconjugated bilirubin is not soluble in water. It is then bound to albumin and sent to the liver.

In the liver it is conjugated with glucuronic acid, making it soluble in water. Much of it goes into the bile and thus out into the small intestine. Some of the conjugated bilirubin remains in the large intestine and is metabolised by colonic bacteria to urobilinogen, which is further metabolized to stercobilinogen, and finally oxidised to stercobilin. This stercobilin gives feces its brown color. Some of the urobilinogen is reabsorbed and excreted in the urine along with an oxidized form, urobilin.

Normally, a tiny amount of bilirubin is excreted in the urine, accounting for the light yellow color. If the liver’s function is impaired or when biliary drainage is blocked, some of the conjugated bilirubin leaks out of the hepatocytes and appears in the urine, turning it dark amber. The presence of this conjugated bilirubin in the urine can be clinically analyzed, and is reported as an increase in urine bilirubin. However, in disorders involving hemolytic anemia, an increased number of red blood cells are broken down, causing an increase in the amount of unconjugated bilirubin in the blood. As stated above, the unconjugated bilirubin is not water soluble, and thus one will not see an increase in bilirubin in the urine. Because there is no problem with the liver or bile systems, this excess unconjugated bilirubin will go through all of the normal processing mechanisms that occur (e.g., conjugation, excretion in bile, metabolism to urobilinogen, reabsorption) and will show up as an increase in urine urobilinogen. This difference between increased urine bilirubin and increased urine urobilinogen helps to distinguish between various disorders in those systems.

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