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Disruption of mitochondrial function during apoptosis is mediated by caspase cleavage of the p75 subunit of complex I of the electron transport chain.

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Mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization and cytochrome c release promote caspase activation and execution of apoptosis through cleavage of specific caspase substrates in the cell. Among the first targets of activated caspases are the permeabilized mitochondria themselves, leading to disruption of electron transport, loss of mitochondrial transmembrane potential (DeltaPsim), decline in ATP levels, production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), and loss of mitochondrial structural integrity. Here, we identify NDUFS1, the 75 kDa subunit of respiratory complex I, as a critical caspase substrate in the mitochondria. Cells expressing a noncleavable mutant of p75 sustain DeltaPsim and ATP levels during apoptosis, and ROS production in response to apoptotic stimuli is dampened. While cytochrome c release and DNA fragmentation are unaffected by the noncleavable p75 mutant, mitochondrial morphology of dying cells is maintained, and loss of plasma membrane integrity is delayed. Therefore, caspase cleavage of NDUFS1 is required for several mitochondrial changes associated with apoptosis.

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