Allotopic expression of mitochondrial-encoded genes in mammals: achieved goal, undemonstrated mechanism or impossible task?

Nucleic Acids Res. 2011 Jan;39(1):225-34. doi: 10.1093/nar/gkq769. Epub 2010 Sep 7.


Mitochondrial-DNA diseases have no effective treatments. Allotopic expression-synthesis of a wild-type version of the mutated protein in the nuclear-cytosolic compartment and its importation into mitochondria-has been proposed as a gene-therapy approach. Allotopic expression has been successfully demonstrated in yeast, but in mammalian mitochondria results are contradictory. The evidence available is based on partial phenotype rescue, not on the incorporation of a functional protein into mitochondria. Here, we show that reliance on partial rescue alone can lead to a false conclusion of successful allotopic expression. We recoded mitochondrial mt-Nd6 to the universal genetic code, and added the N-terminal mitochondrial-targeting sequence of cytochrome c oxidase VIII (C8) and the HA epitope (C8Nd6HA). The protein apparently co-localized with mitochondria, but a significant part of it seemed to be located outside mitochondria. Complex I activity and assembly was restored, suggesting successful allotopic expression. However, careful examination of transfected cells showed that the allotopically-expressed protein was not internalized in mitochondria and that the selected clones were in fact revertants for the mt-Nd6 mutation. These findings demonstrate the need for extreme caution in the interpretation of functional rescue experiments and for clear-cut controls to demonstrate true rescue of mitochondrial function by allotopic expression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / chemistry
  • Gene Expression
  • Genes, Mitochondrial*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Mitochondrial Membranes / metabolism
  • Mitochondrial Proteins / genetics*
  • Mitochondrial Proteins / metabolism
  • Mutation
  • NADH Dehydrogenase / genetics
  • NADH Dehydrogenase / metabolism
  • NIH 3T3 Cells
  • Protein Transport


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Mitochondrial Proteins
  • NADH Dehydrogenase
  • NADH dehydrogenase subunit 6, mouse