Mammalian cells are highly organized to optimize function. For instance, oxidative energy-producing processes in mitochondria are sequestered away from plasma membrane redox signalling complexes and also from nuclear DNA, which is subject to oxidant-induced mutation. Proteins are unique among macromolecules in having reversible oxidizable elements, 'sulphur switches', which support dynamic regulation of structure and function. Accumulating evidence shows that redox signalling and control systems are maintained under kinetically limited steady states, which are highly displaced from redox equilibrium and distinct among organelles. Mitochondria are most reducing and susceptible to oxidation under stressed conditions, while nuclei are also reducing but relatively resistant to oxidation. Within compartments, the glutathione and thioredoxin systems serve parallel and non-redundant functions to maintain the dynamic redox balance of subsets of protein cysteines, which function in redox signalling and control. This organization allows cells to be poised to respond to cell stress but also creates sites of vulnerability. Importantly, disruption of redox organization is a common basis for disease. Research tools are becoming available to elucidate details of subcellular redox organization, and this development highlights an opportunity for a new generation of targeted antioxidants to enhance and restore redox signalling and control in disease prevention.
© 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.