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Hum Mol Genet. 2009 Feb 15;18(4):737-52. doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddn404. Epub 2008 Nov 27.

Effects of overexpression of huntingtin proteins on mitochondrial integrity.

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Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Medical Biotechnology Center, University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, Baltimore, MD 21201, USA.


Huntington's disease (HD) is caused by an expansion of a CAG trinucleotide sequence that encodes a polyglutamine tract in the huntingtin (Htt) protein. Expansion of the polyglutamine tract above 35 repeats causes disease, with the age of onset inversely related to the degree of expansion above this number. Growing evidence suggests that mitochondrial function is compromised during HD pathogenesis, but how this occurs is not understood. We examined mitochondrial properties of HeLa cells that expressed green fluorescent protein (GFP)- or FLAG-tagged N-terminal portions of the Htt protein containing either, 17, 28, 74 or 138 polyglutamine repeats. Immunofluorescence staining of cells using antibodies against Tom20, a mitochondrion localized protein, revealed that cells expressing Htt proteins with 74 or 138 polyglutamine repeats were more sensitized to oxidative stress-induced mitochondria fragmentation and had reduced ATP levels compared with cells expressing Htt proteins with 17 or 28 polyglutamine repeats. By measuring changes in fluorescence of a photoactivated GFP protein targeted to mitochondria, we found that cells expressing red fluorescent protein (RFP)-tagged Htt protein containing 74 polyglutamine repeats had mitochondria that displayed reduced movement and fusion than cells expressing RFP-Htt protein with 28 polyglutamine repeats. Overexpression of Drp-1(K38A), a dominant-negative mitochondria-fission mutant, or Mfn2, a protein that promotes mitochondria fusion, suppressed polyglutamine-induced mitochondria fragmentation, the reduction of ATP levels and cell death. In a Caenorhabditis elegans model of HD, we found that reduction of Drp-1 expression by RNA interference rescued the motility defect associated with the expression of Htt proteins with polyglutamine repeats. These results suggest that the increase in cytotoxicity induced by Htt proteins containing expanded polyglutamine tracts is likely mediated, at least in part, by an alteration in normal mitochondrial dynamics, which results in increased mitochondrial fragmentation. Furthermore, our results suggest that it might be possible to reverse polyglutamine-induced cytotoxicity by preventing mitochondrial fragmentation.

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