A novel way to cause disease

Pathogenic forms of the ANT1 protein lead to harmful consequences in yeast and mice by clogging the channels that allow mitochondria to import proteins.

A 12-month-old mouse carrying a mutated version of the gene coding for the ANT1 protein (right) shows signs of paralysis which does not occur in wild-type mice (left). Image credit: Xiaowen Wang (CC BY 4.0)

Inside our cells, compartments known as mitochondria generate the chemical energy required for life processes to unfold. Most of the proteins found within mitochondria are manufactured in another part of the cell (known as the cytosol) and then imported with the help of specialist machinery. For example, the TOM and TIM22 channels provide a route for the proteins to cross the two membrane barriers that separate the cytosol from the inside of a mitochondrion.

ANT1 is a protein that is found inside mitochondria in humans, where it acts as a transport system for the cell’s energy currency. Specific mutations in the gene encoding ANT1 have been linked to degenerative conditions that affect the muscles and the brain. However, it remains unclear how these mutations cause disease.

To address this question, Coyne et al. recreated some of the mutations in the gene encoding the yeast equivalent of ANT1 (known as Aac2). Experiments in yeast cells carrying these mutations showed that the Aac2 protein accumulated in the TOM and TIM22 channels, creating a ‘clog’ that prevented other essential proteins from reaching the mitochondria. As a result, the yeast cells died. Mutant forms of the human ANT1 protein also clogged up the TOM and TIM22 channels of human cells in a similar way.

Further experiments focused on mice genetically engineered to produce a “super-clogger” version of the mouse equivalent of ANT1. The animals soon developed muscle and neurological conditions similar to those observed in human diseases associated with ANT1.

The findings of Coyne et al. suggest that certain genetic mutations in the gene encoding the ANT1 protein cause disease by blocking the transport of other proteins to the mitochondria, rather than by directly affecting ANT1’s nucleotide trnsport role in the cell. This redefines our understanding of diseases associated with mitochondrial proteins, potentially altering how treatments for these conditions are designed.