Mitochondrial autophagy in cells with mtDNA mutations results from synergistic loss of transmembrane potential and mTORC1 inhibition

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Abstract

Autophagy has emerged as a key cellular process for organellar quality control, yet this pathway apparently fails to eliminate mitochondria containing pathogenic mutations in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in patients with a variety of human diseases. In order to explore how mtDNA-mediated mitochondrial dysfunction interacts with endogenous autophagic pathways, we examined autophagic status in a panel of human cytoplasmic hybrid (cybrid) cell lines carrying a variety of pathogenic mtDNA mutations. We found that both genetic- and chemically induced loss of mitochondrial transmembrane potential (Δψm) caused recruitment of the pro-mitophagic factor Parkin to mitochondria. Strikingly, however, the loss of Δψm alone was insufficient to prompt delivery of mitochondria to the autophagosome (mitophagy). We found that mitophagy could be induced following treatment with the mTORC1 inhibitor rapamycin in cybrids carrying either large-scale partial deletions of mtDNA or complete depletion of mtDNA. Further, we found that the level of endogenous Parkin is a crucial determinant of mitophagy. These results suggest a two-hit model, in which the synergistic induction of both (i) mitochondrial recruitment of Parkin following the loss of Δψm and (ii) mTORC1-controlled general macroautophagy is required for mitophagy. It appears that mitophagy can be accomplished by the endogenous autophagic machinery, but requires the full engagement of both of these pathways.

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