How some tissues can “breathe” without oxygen

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Mouse cells with mitochondria in green, nuclei in blue, and the actin cytoskeleton in red. Credit: Image courtesy of Dylan Burnette and Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health. 

Humans need oxygen molecules for a process called cellular respiration, which takes place in our cells’ mitochondria. Through a series of reactions called the electron transport chain, electrons are passed along in a sort of cellular relay race, allowing the cell to create ATP, the molecule that gives our cells energy to complete their vital functions. 

In the past, however, scientists have noticed that cells are able to maintain some functions of the electron transport chain, even in the absence of oxygen. “This indicated that mitochondria could actually have partial function, even when oxygen is not the electron acceptor,” said Whitehead Institute postdoctoral researcher Jessica Spinelli. “We wanted to understand, how does this work? How are mitochondria capable of maintaining these electron inputs when oxygen is not the terminal electron acceptor?”

In a paper published December 2 in the journal Science, Whitehead Institute scientists and collaborators led by Spinelli have found the answer to these questions. Their research shows that when cells are deprived of oxygen, another molecule called fumarate can step in and serve as a terminal electron acceptor to enable mitochondrial function in this environment. The research, which was completed in the laboratory of former Whitehead Member David Sabatini,  answers a long-standing mystery in the field of cellular metabolism, and could potentially inform research into diseases that cause low oxygen levels in tissues, including ischemia, diabetes and cancer.

The World Mitochondria Society will highlight this topic in the "13th Targeting Mitochondria Congress 2022".


View full article here.

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