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Klei, Ida J. van der; Veenhuis, Marten; Neupert, Walter (1. March 1994): A morphological view on mitochondrial protein targeting. In: Microscopy Research and Technique, Vol. 27, No. 4: pp. 284-293


Mitochondrial protein targeting includes both intramitochondrial sorting of proteins encoded by the organellar genome and import and subsequent sorting of nuclear encoded precursor proteins. Only a few proteins are encoded by the mitochondrial genome and synthesized in the organellar matrix. These include predominantly inner membrane proteins that are perhaps co-translationally inserted into this membrane. Biochemical data suggest that insertion into the inner membrane may be confined to the inner boundary membrane. Ultrastructurally, however, a preferential association of ribosomes with either inner boundary or cristae membranes has not been established. The majority of the mitochondrial proteins are nuclear encoded and synthesized as precursors in the cytosol. Electron microscopic studies revealed that import of precursor proteins is generally confined to sites where both mitochondrial envelope membranes are closely apposed. In line with these observations, biochemical studies indicated that precursor proteins destined for the inner membrane or matrix have to interact with the energized inner membrane to allow complete passage of the precursor through the outer membrane. As a consequence, the mitochondrial envelope membranes have to be in close proximity at protein import sites. In isolated mitochondria distinct sites (designated as contact sites) exist where both envelope membranes are closely apposed and presumably stably associated. In situ, however, mitochondrial boundary membranes are in close proximity over large areas that cover almost the entire mitochondrial periphery. Consequently, the relative area of the mitochondrial surface, where both boundary membranes are in sufficient proximity for allowing protein translocation, is generally larger in situ compared to that in isolated organelles. Immunocytochemical localization studies showed a rather random distribution of components of the mitochondrial protein translocation machinery over the entire mitochondrial surface and not confined to contact sites. Based on these ultrastructral data and recent biochemical findings we propose that mitochondrial protein import sites are dynamic in nature and include relatively labile regions of close association of the boundary membranes. In vitro, however, mitochondrial protein import may preferentially take place at or near the presumably stable contact sites.