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During the reign of King Edward III of Britain in the 14th century, utensils and other household objects made of iron were considered precious. Even thieves sought to obtain these items.
Today, iron is valuable in a different sense – it is the least expensive, but possibly the most important of all metals. It is the fourth most abundant element by weight. In the form of steel, it is used to fabricate a vast number of objects.
Iron is essential for all life forms. Hemoglobin, found in the body's red blood cells, is an iron-rich protein that binds to oxygen for efficient oxygen delivery around the body. Iron deficiency anemia is a condition whereby insufficient oxygen is distributed throughout an animal's body to provide energy for its activities. In infectious salmon anemia, a virus commandeers fish "blood-iron" for its own purposes, eventually killing the animal. This disease created a huge setback for the Atlantic salmon fishery in 1999 when one million salmon had to be culled. However, in 2000, National Research Council Canada (NRC) scientists in partnership with Microtek International Ltd. developed a vaccine to protect Atlantic salmon from this disease.
Iron is also an important constituent in certain body enzymes. Iron-containing cytochrome c is an example of an enzyme found within the mitochondria – the "powerhouse" of a cell. It provides the energy necessary to keep the cell alive. During apoptosis – a condition whereby a cell self-programs to commit suicide – this enzyme is released from the mitochondria. This loss disables the mitochondria from providing energy to the cell, and as a result, the cell dies. NRC researchers are working to develop drugs that are potentially antiapoptotic. If proven effective, such a discovery could lead to drugs for Alzheimer's, Huntington's, stroke, and even cancer.