The mitochondrial carnitine/acylcarnitine carrier: function, structure and physiopathology

Mol Aspects Med. 2011 Aug;32(4-6):223-33. doi: 10.1016/j.mam.2011.10.008. Epub 2011 Oct 15.


The carnitine/acylcarnitine carrier (CAC) is a transport protein of the inner mitochondrial membrane that belongs to the mitochondrial carrier protein family. In its cytosolic conformation the carrier consists of a bundle of six transmembrane α-helices, which delimit a water filled cavity opened towards the cytosol and closed towards the matrix by a network of interacting charged residues. Most of the functional data on this transporter come from studies performed with the protein purified from rat liver mitochondria or recombinant proteins from different sources incorporated into phospholipid vesicles (liposomes). The carnitine/acylcarnitine carrier transports carnitine and acylcarnitines with acyl chains of various lengths from 2 to 18 carbon atoms. The mammalian transporter exhibits higher affinity for acylcarnitines with longer carbon chains. The functional data indicate that CAC plays the important function of catalyzing transport of acylcarnitines into the mitochondria in exchange for intramitochondrial free carnitine. This results in net transport of fatty acyl units into the mitochondrial matrix where they are oxidized by the β-oxidation enzymes. The essential role of the transporter in cell metabolism is demonstrated by the fact that alterations of the human gene SLC25A20 coding for CAC are associated with a severe disease known as carnitine carrier deficiency. This autosomal recessive disorder is characterized by life-threatening episodes of coma induced by fasting, cardiomyopathy, liver dysfunction, muscle weakness, respiratory distress and seizures. Until now 35 different mutations of CAC gene have been identified in carnitine carrier deficient patients. Some missense mutations concern residues of the signature motif present in all mitochondrial carriers. Diagnosis of carnitine carrier deficiency requires biochemical and genetic tests; treatment is essentially limited to important dietetic measures. Recently, a pharmacological approach based on the use of statins and/or fibrates for the treatment of CAC-deficient patients with mild phenotype has been proposed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carnitine Acyltransferases / chemistry*
  • Carnitine Acyltransferases / deficiency
  • Carnitine Acyltransferases / genetics
  • Carnitine Acyltransferases / metabolism*
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Humans
  • Mitochondrial Proteins / chemistry*
  • Mitochondrial Proteins / genetics
  • Mitochondrial Proteins / metabolism*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Protein Structure, Secondary


  • Mitochondrial Proteins
  • Carnitine Acyltransferases