Mammalian mitochondria have the innate ability to import tRNAs by a mechanism distinct from protein import

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Jul 8;105(27):9186-91. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0804283105. Epub 2008 Jun 27.


Mitochondrial genomes generally encode a minimal set of tRNAs necessary for protein synthesis. However, a number of eukaryotes import tRNAs from the cytoplasm into their mitochondria. For instance, Saccharomyces cerevisiae imports cytoplasmic tRNA(Gln) into the mitochondrion without any added protein factors. Here, we examine the existence of a similar active tRNA import system in mammalian mitochondria. We have used subcellular RNA fractions from rat liver and human cells to perform RT-PCR with oligonucleotide primers specific for nucleus-encoded tRNA(CUG)(Gln) and tRNA(UUG)(Gln) species, and we show that these tRNAs are present in rat and human mitochondria in vivo. Import of in vitro transcribed tRNAs, but not of heterologous RNAs, into isolated mitochondria also demonstrates that this process is tRNA-specific and does not require the addition of cytosolic factors. Although this in vitro system requires ATP, it is resistant to inhibitors of the mitochondrial electrochemical gradient, a key component of protein import. tRNA(Gln) import into mammalian mitochondria proceeds by a mechanism distinct from protein import. We also show that both tRNA(Gln) species and a bacterial pre-tRNA(Asp) can be imported in vitro into mitochondria isolated from myoclonic epilepsy with ragged-red fiber cells if provided with sufficient ATP (2 mM). This work suggests that tRNA import is more widespread than previously thought and may be a universal trait of mitochondria. Mutations in mitochondrial tRNA genes have been associated with human disease; the tRNA import system described here could possibly be exploited for the manipulation of defective mitochondria.

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.

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Triphosphate / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Cell Nucleus / drug effects
  • Cell Nucleus / metabolism
  • Cytosol / drug effects
  • Cytosol / metabolism
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • MERRF Syndrome / pathology
  • Mammals / metabolism*
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / metabolism*
  • Mitochondria / pathology
  • Mitochondria, Liver / drug effects
  • Mitochondria, Liver / metabolism
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation / drug effects
  • Protein Transport / drug effects
  • RNA Transport* / drug effects
  • RNA, Transfer, Gln / chemistry
  • RNA, Transfer, Gln / genetics
  • RNA, Transfer, Gln / metabolism*
  • Rats
  • Solubility / drug effects


  • RNA, Transfer, Gln
  • Adenosine Triphosphate