Plasticity of oxidative metabolism in variable climates: molecular mechanisms

Physiol Biochem Zool. Sep-Oct 2010;83(5):721-32. doi: 10.1086/649964.


Converting food to chemical energy (ATP) that is usable by cells is a principal requirement to sustain life. The rate of ATP production has to be sufficient for housekeeping functions, such as protein synthesis and maintaining membrane potentials, as well as for growth and locomotion. Energy metabolism is temperature sensitive, and animals respond to environmental variability at different temporal levels, from within-individual to evolutionary timescales. Here we review principal molecular mechanisms that underlie control of oxidative ATP production in response to climate variability. Nuclear transcription factors and coactivators control expression of mitochondrial proteins and abundance of mitochondria. Fatty acid and phospholipid concentrations of membranes influence the activity of membrane-bound proteins as well as the passive leak of protons across the mitochondrial membrane. Passive proton leak as well as protein-mediated proton leak across the inner mitochondrial membrane determine the efficacy of ATP production but are also instrumental in endothermic heat production and as a defense against reactive oxygen species. Both transcriptional mechanisms and membrane composition interact with environmental temperature and diet, and this interaction between diet and temperature in determining mitochondrial function links the two major environmental variables that are affected by changing climates. The limits to metabolic plasticity could be set by the production of reactive oxygen species leading to cellular damage, limits to substrate availability in mitochondria, and a disproportionally large increase in proton leak over ATP production.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Triphosphate / biosynthesis*
  • Animals
  • Climate*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Diet*
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation / physiology*
  • Mitochondria / physiology*
  • Mitochondrial Membranes / metabolism
  • Mitochondrial Proteins / metabolism*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Species Specificity
  • Temperature
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Mitochondrial Proteins
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Transcription Factors
  • Adenosine Triphosphate