The sphingolipid, ceramide, self-assembles in the mitochondrial outer membrane (MOM), forming large channels capable of translocating proteins. These channels are believed to be involved in protein release from mitochondria, a key decision-making step in cell death. Synthetic analogs of ceramide, bearing modifications in each of the major structural features of ceramide were used to probe the molecular basis for the stability of ceramide channels. Channel stability and mitochondrial permeabilization were disrupted by methylation of the C1-hydroxyl group whereas modifications of the C3 allylic hydroxyl group were well tolerated. A change in chirality at C2 that would influence the orientation of the C1-hydroxyl group resulted in a strong reduction of channel-forming ability. Similarly, methylation of the amide nitrogen is also detrimental to channel formation. Many changes in the degree, location and nature of the unsaturation of ceramide had little effect on mitochondrial permeabilization. Competition experiments between ceramide and analogs resulted in synergy with structures compatible with the ceramide channel model and antagonism with incompatible structures. The results are consistent with ceramide channels being highly organized structures, stabilized by specific inter-molecular interactions, similar to the interactions responsible for protein folding.
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