Apoptotic interactions of cytochrome c: redox flirting with anionic phospholipids within and outside of mitochondria

Biochim Biophys Acta. 2006 May-Jun;1757(5-6):648-59. doi: 10.1016/j.bbabio.2006.03.002. Epub 2006 Mar 31.


Since the (re)discovery of cytochrome c (cyt c) in the early 1920s and subsequent detailed characterization of its structure and function in mitochondrial electron transport, it took over 70 years to realize that cyt c plays a different, not less universal role in programmed cell death, apoptosis, by interacting with several proteins and forming apoptosomes. Recently, two additional essential functions of cyt c in apoptosis have been discovered that are carried out via its interactions with anionic phospholipids: a mitochondria specific phospholipid, cardiolipin (CL), and plasma membrane phosphatidylserine (PS). Execution of apoptotic program in cells is accompanied by substantial and early mitochondrial production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Because antioxidant enhancements protect cells against apoptosis, ROS production was viewed not as a meaningless side effect of mitochondrial disintegration but rather playing some - as yet unidentified - role in apoptosis. This conundrum has been resolved by establishing that mitochondria contain a pool of cyt c, which interacts with CL and acts as a CL oxygenase. The oxygenase is activated during apoptosis, utilizes generated ROS and causes selective oxidation of CL. The oxidized CL is required for the release of pro-apoptotic factors from mitochondria into the cytosol. This redox mechanism of cyt c is realized earlier than its other well-recognized functions in the formation of apoptosomes and caspase activation. In the cytosol, released cyt c interacts with another anionic phospholipid, PS, and catalyzes its oxidation in a similar oxygenase reaction. Peroxidized PS facilitates its externalization essential for the recognition and clearance of apoptotic cells by macrophages. Redox catalysis of plasma membrane PS oxidation constitutes an important redox-dependent function of cyt c in apoptosis and phagocytosis. Thus, cyt c acts as an anionic phospholipid specific oxygenase activated and required for the execution of essential stages of apoptosis. This review is focused on newly discovered redox mechanisms of complexes of cyt c with anionic phospholipids and their role in apoptotic pathways in health and disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / metabolism
  • Apoptosis
  • Atherosclerosis / metabolism
  • Cardiolipins / metabolism
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cytochromes c / metabolism*
  • Electron Transport
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / metabolism*
  • Mitochondrial Membranes / metabolism
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Oxygenases / metabolism
  • Peroxidases / metabolism
  • Phospholipids / metabolism*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism


  • Antioxidants
  • Cardiolipins
  • Phospholipids
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Cytochromes c
  • Peroxidases
  • Oxygenases