HFE, an atypical MHC class I type molecule, has a critical, yet still elusive function in the regulation of systemic iron metabolism. HFE mutations are linked to hereditary haemochromatosis type 1, a common autosomal recessive disorder of iron overload. Most patients are homozygous for a C282Y point mutation that abrogates the interaction of HFE with beta(2)-microglobulin (beta(2)M) and, thus, impairs its proper processing and expression on the cell surface. An H63D substitution is also associated with disease. To investigate the function of HFE we have generated clones of human H1299 lung cancer cells that express wild-type, C282Y or H63D HFE under the control of a tetracycline-inducible promoter. Consistent with earlier observations in other cell lines, the expression of wild-type or H63D, but not C282Y, HFE induces an apparent iron-deficient phenotype, manifested in the activation of iron-regulatory protein and concomitant increase in transferrin receptor levels and decrease in ferritin content. This phenotype persists in cells expressing wild-type HFE after transfection with a beta(2)M cDNA. Whereas endogenous beta(2)M is sufficient for the presentation of at least a fraction of chimeric HFE on the cell surface, this effect is stimulated by approx. 2.8-fold in beta(2)M transfectants. The co-expression of exogenous beta(2)M does not significantly affect the half-life of HFE. These results suggest that the apparent iron-deficient phenotype elicited by HFE is not linked to beta(2)M insufficiency.