Artemisinin directly targets malarial mitochondria through its specific mitochondrial activation

PLoS One. 2010 Mar 8;5(3):e9582. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009582.


The biological mode of action of artemisinin, a potent antimalarial, has long been controversial. Previously we established a yeast model addressing its mechanism of action and found mitochondria the key in executing artemisinin's action. Here we present data showing that artemisinin directly acts on mitochondria and it inhibits malaria in a similar way as yeast. Specifically, artemisinin and its homologues exhibit correlated activities against malaria and yeast, with the peroxide bridge playing a key role for their inhibitory action in both organisms. In addition, we showed that artemisinins are distributed to malarial mitochondria and directly impair their functions when isolated mitochondria were tested. In efforts to explore how the action specificity of artemisinin is achieved, we found strikingly rapid and dramatic reactive oxygen species (ROS) production is induced with artemisinin in isolated yeast and malarial but not mammalian mitochondria, and ROS scavengers can ameliorate the effects of artemisinin. Deoxyartemisinin, which lacks an endoperoxide bridge, has no effect on membrane potential or ROS production in malarial mitochondria. OZ209, a distantly related antimalarial endoperoxide, also causes ROS production and depolarization in isolated malarial mitochondria. Finally, interference of mitochondrial electron transport chain (ETC) can alter the sensitivity of the parasite towards artemisinin. Addition of iron chelator desferrioxamine drastically reduces ETC activity as well as mitigates artemisinin-induced ROS production. Taken together, our results indicate that mitochondrion is an important direct target, if not the sole one, in the antimalarial action of artemisinins. We suggest that fundamental differences among mitochondria from different species delineate the action specificity of this class of drugs, and differing from many other drugs, the action specificity of artemisinins originates from their activation mechanism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Infective Agents / pharmacology
  • Antimalarials / pharmacology
  • Artemisinins / pharmacology*
  • Malaria / drug therapy*
  • Mitochondria / drug effects*
  • Mitochondrial Membranes / drug effects*
  • Models, Chemical
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Peroxides / chemistry
  • Plasmodium berghei / drug effects*
  • Plasmodium falciparum / drug effects*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species


  • Anti-Infective Agents
  • Antimalarials
  • Artemisinins
  • Peroxides
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • deoxyartemisinin
  • artemisinine