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PLoS One. 2011;6(6):e19783. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0019783. Epub 2011 Jun 13.

Mitochondrial ceramide-rich macrodomains functionalize Bax upon irradiation.

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Laboratory of Signal Transduction, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, New York, United States of America.



Evidence indicates that Bax functions as a "lipidic" pore to regulate mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization (MOMP), the apoptosis commitment step, through unknown membrane elements. Here we show mitochondrial ceramide elevation facilitates MOMP-mediated cytochrome c release in HeLa cells by generating a previously-unrecognized mitochondrial ceramide-rich macrodomain (MCRM), which we visualize and isolate, into which Bax integrates.


MCRMs, virtually non-existent in resting cells, form upon irradiation coupled to ceramide synthase-mediated ceramide elevation, optimizing Bax insertion/oligomerization and MOMP. MCRMs are detected by confocal microscopy in intact HeLa cells and isolated biophysically as a light membrane fraction from HeLa cell lysates. Inhibiting ceramide generation using a well-defined natural ceramide synthase inhibitor, Fumonisin B1, prevented radiation-induced Bax insertion, oligomerization and MOMP. MCRM deconstruction using purified mouse hepatic mitochondria revealed ceramide alone is non-apoptogenic. Rather Bax integrates into MCRMs, oligomerizing therein, conferring 1-2 log enhanced cytochrome c release. Consistent with this mechanism, MCRM Bax isolates as high molecular weight "pore-forming" oligomers, while non-MCRM membrane contains exclusively MOMP-incompatible monomeric Bax.


Our recent studies in the C. elegans germline indicate that mitochondrial ceramide generation is obligate for radiation-induced apoptosis, although a mechanism for ceramide action was not delineated. Here we demonstrate that ceramide, generated in the mitochondrial outer membrane of mammalian cells upon irradiation, forms a platform into which Bax inserts, oligomerizes and functionalizes as a pore. We posit conceptualization of ceramide as a membrane-based stress calibrator, driving membrane macrodomain organization, which in mitochondria regulates intensity of Bax-induced MOMP, and is pharmacologically tractable in vitro and in vivo.

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