Research Article

BAK/BAX macropores facilitate mitochondrial herniation and mtDNA efflux during apoptosis

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Science  23 Feb 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6378, eaao6047
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao6047

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The great escape

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is a potent damage-associated molecular pattern that, if it reaches the cytoplasm or extracellular milieu, triggers innate immune pathways. mtDNA signaling has been implicated in a wide range of diseases; however, the mechanisms of mtDNA release are unclear, and the process has not been observed in real time thus far. McArthur et al. used live-cell lattice light-sheet microscopy to look at mtDNA release during intrinsic apoptosis. Activation of the pro-death proteins BAK and BAX resulted in the formation of large macro-pores in the mitochondrial outer membrane. These massive holes caused the inner mitochondrial membrane to balloon out into the cytoplasm, resulting in mitochondrial herniation. This process allowed the contents of the mitochondrial matrix, including mtDNA, to escape into the cytoplasm.

Science, this issue p. eaao6047

Structured Abstract

INTRODUCTION

There has been an explosion of interest in the role of cell death pathways and damage-associated molecular pattern (DAMP) signaling in shaping inflammatory and immune responses. Mitochondria are central to the intrinsic apoptosis pathway, the classical form of programmed cell death. Several mitochondrial constituents have been implicated as DAMPs, including mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Recent work has shown that activation of intrinsic BAK and BAX–mediated apoptosis results in mtDNA-dependent triggering of the innate immune cGAS/STING pathway, resulting in type I interferon production by dying cells. The apoptotic caspase cascade normally functions to suppress this mtDNA-induced cGAS/STING signaling, rendering apoptosis “immunologically silent.”

RATIONALE

It is thought that during apoptosis, mtDNA is released into the cytoplasm. In addition to apoptosis, loss of mtDNA from the matrix has been associated with conditions including HIV and dengue infection, calcium overload, irradiation, or inflammatory diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus or rheumatoid arthritis. However, mtDNA escape from the mitochondria has not been documented in real time.

RESULTS

Using a combination of live-cell lattice light-sheet microscopy, 3D structured illumination microscopy, correlative light electron microscopy, and electron cryotomography, we found that after BAK/BAX activation and cytochrome c loss, the mitochondrial network broke down and large BAK/BAX pores appeared in the outer membrane. These BAK/BAX macropores allowed the inner membrane an outlet through which it herniated, carrying with it mitochondrial matrix components, including the mitochondrial genome. A subset of the herniated inner membranes lost their integrity, allowing mtDNA to be exposed to the cytoplasm.

CONCLUSION

An extensive literature suggests that mtDNA is found outside the mitochondria—and, indeed, outside the cell—in a wide range of circumstances. Our study provides a mechanistic description of its release from the mitochondria. mtDNA release from mitochondria during apoptosis occurs irrespective of caspase activity, but in normal cells, caspases attenuate the subsequent cGAS/STING-mediated interferon response by driving rapid cellular collapse and clearance. Mitochondrial herniation might represent a general mechanism of mtDNA escape. In addition to BAK and BAX oligomerization, there may be alternative triggers—for example, other pore-forming proteins (host- or pathogen-derived) or mitochondrial stresses—that lead to the occurrence of this phenomenon.

Schematic of apoptotic mitochondrial herniation.

Inset images show the key stages as captured by lattice light-sheet microscopy, structured illumination microscopy, and correlative light and electron microscopy.

Abstract

Mitochondrial apoptosis is mediated by BAK and BAX, two proteins that induce mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization, leading to cytochrome c release and activation of apoptotic caspases. In the absence of active caspases, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) triggers the innate immune cGAS/STING pathway, causing dying cells to secrete type I interferon. How cGAS gains access to mtDNA remains unclear. We used live-cell lattice light-sheet microscopy to examine the mitochondrial network in mouse embryonic fibroblasts. We found that after BAK/BAX activation and cytochrome c loss, the mitochondrial network broke down and large BAK/BAX pores appeared in the outer membrane. These BAK/BAX macropores allowed the inner mitochondrial membrane to herniate into the cytosol, carrying with it mitochondrial matrix components, including the mitochondrial genome. Apoptotic caspases did not prevent herniation but dismantled the dying cell to suppress mtDNA-induced innate immune signaling.

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