Vertebrate retinal rods are photoreceptors for dim-light vision. They display extreme sensitivity to light thanks to a specialized subcellular organelle, the rod outer segment. This is filled with a stack of membranous disks, expressing the proteins involved in visual transduction, a very energy demanding process. Our previous proteomic and biochemical studies have shed new light on the chemical energy processes that supply ATP to the outer segment, suggesting the presence of an extra-mitochondrial aerobic metabolism in rod outer segment, devoid of mitochondria, which would account for a quantitatively adequate ATP supply for phototransduction. Here the functional presence of an oxidative phosphorylation in the rod outer limb is examined for its relationship to many physiological and pathological data on the rod outer segment. We hypothesize that the rod outer limb is at risk of oxidative stress, in any case of impairment in the respiratory chain functioning, or of blood supply. In fact, the electron transfer chain is a major source of reactive O(2) species, known to produce severe alteration to the membrane lipids, especially those of the outer segment that are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids. We propose that the disk membrane may become the target of reactive oxygen species that may be released by the electron transport chain under pathologic conditions. For example, during aging reactive oxygen species production increases, while cellular antioxidant capacity decreases. Also the apoptosis of the rod observed after exposure to bright or continuous illumination can be explained considering that an overfunctioning of phototransduction may damage the disk membrane to a point at which cytochrome c escapes from the intradiskal space, where it is presently supposed to be, activating a putative caspase 9 and the apoptosome. A pathogenic mechanism for many inherited and acquired retinal degenerations, representing a major problem in clinical ophthalmology, is proposed: a number of rod pathologies would be promoted by impairment of energy supply and/or oxidative stress in the rod outer segment. In conclusion we suppose that the damaging role of oxygen, be it hypoxia or hyperoxia invoked in most of the blinding diseases, acquired and even hereditary is to be seeked for inside the photoreceptor outer segment that would conceal a potential for cell death that is still to be recognized.
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