Friday, 29 January 2016

ARTICLE: Go green -- recycle mitochondria

A novel quantitative assay of mitophagy: Combining high content fluorescence microscopy and mitochondrial DNA load to quantify mitophagy and identify novel pharmacological tools against pathogenic heteroplasmic mtDNA

  • Mitophagy degrades mitochondria, and likely plays important roles in the cell's responses to mitochondrial disease, but is hard to measure and thus poorly understood: we propose new ways of measuring mitophagy and use them to explore drugs that may help change damaged mitochondrial populations
Mitochondria, as we've written about before, are important entities in our cells that produce energy and take part in many other vital processes. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), inherited from our mothers, contains instructions on how to build important mitochondrial machinery. MtDNA is sometimes mutated, leading to problems with our mitochondria. How do our cells cope?

Mitophagy (from mito-(chondria) and -phagy (eating)) is a process by which cells degrade and recycle mitochondria, allowing dysfunctional mitochondria to be removed and replaced. Mitophagy is one of a number of cellular mechanisms that maintain a healthy population of mitochondria, and appears to play a central role in determining the inheritance and evolution of mtDNA over our lifetimes. However, our understanding of mitophagy is limited because it is hard to observe.

In a recent and epically-titled paper in Pharmacological Research here, we explore two different approaches for measuring mitophagy in cells. The first is physical. We used chemicals to make mitochondria glow red, and autophagosomes (the cellular machines responsible for the degradation of mitochondria) glow green. We then used a microscope to examine large numbers of cells and recorded how often red (mitochondria) and green (autophagosomes) were seen together, which we took to imply that mitophagy may be occurring. We confirmed that various drugs and chemicals known to affect mitophagy had the expected effects on this estimate of mitophagy, and that perturbing ATG7 (an essential part of the autophagic machinery) sustantially reduced our observed mitophagy levels.

We also subjected cells to stress by growing them with a less plentiful supply of energy. We found that this energy stress increased the amount of mitophagy (perhaps as cells struggle to make the very best of their mitochondrial populations). We also found that mitophagy broadly decreased in cells from older people, and was increased in cells from people carrying an mtDNA disease (negatively affecting mitochondrial functionality).

The second approach is genetic. In cells from patients with mtDNA disease, some mtDNA is normal and some is mutated -- we used genetic tools to measure the proportion of mutant mtDNA in cells. We observed that when we stressed patients' cells, levels of mutant mtDNA decreased while our physically observed measure of mitophagy increased, supporting a picture in which mitophagy removes dysfunctional mitochondria when energy output is of central importance. We also found evidence for undirected mitophagy, where mtDNA copy number is depleted with no preference for mutant or wildtype.

Observing the colocalisation of autophagosomes (green) and mitochondria (red), as well as the proportion of mutant mtDNA (white stars), allows a bilateral characterisation of mitophagy. The patterns of changes in these observations tell us about how drug treatments and different environments change mitochondrial populations.

The physical and genetic approaches give us two largely independent means to estimate mitophagy, placing our understanding of this vital process on a solid analytical foundation. We used these tools to assess the effects of various drugs on mitophagy, allowing us to characterise the effects of drugs like metformin (inhibiting mitophagy) and phenanthroline (inducing undirected mitophagy) in unprecedented detail and facilitating more precise statements about their utility in clinical contexts. Iain

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