Molecular mechanisms of superoxide production by the mitochondrial respiratory chain

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2012;748:145-69. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-3573-0_6.


The mitochondrial respiratory chain is a major source of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in eukaryotic cells. Mitochondrial ROS production associated with a dysfunction of respiratory chain complexes has been implicated in a number of degenerative diseases and biological aging. Recent findings suggest that mitochondrial ROS can be integral components of cellular signal transduction as well. Within the respiratory chain, complexes I (NADH:ubiquinone oxidoreductase) and III (ubiquinol:cytochrome c oxidoreductase; cytochrome bc (1) complex) are generally considered as the main producers of superoxide anions that are released into the mitochondrial matrix and the intermembrane space, respectively. The primary function of both respiratory chain complexes is to employ energy supplied by redox reactions to drive the vectorial transfer of protons into the mitochondrial intermembrane space. This process involves a set of distinct electron carriers designed to minimize the unwanted leak of electrons from reduced cofactors onto molecular oxygen and hence ROS generation under normal circumstances. Nevertheless, it seems plausible that superoxide is derived from intermediates of the normal catalytic cycles of complexes I and III. Therefore, a detailed understanding of the molecular mechanisms driving these enzymes is required to understand mitochondrial ROS production during oxidative stress and redox signalling. This review summarizes recent findings on the chemistry and control of the reactions within respiratory complexes I and III that result in increased superoxide generation. Regulatory contributions of other components of the respiratory chain, especially complex II (succinate:ubiquinone oxidoreductase) and the redox state of the ubiquinone pool (Q-pool) will be briefly discussed.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Electron Transport Complex I / chemistry
  • Electron Transport Complex I / physiology
  • Electron Transport Complex III / chemistry
  • Electron Transport Complex III / physiology
  • Electron Transport*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / metabolism*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Superoxides / metabolism*


  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Superoxides
  • Electron Transport Complex I
  • Electron Transport Complex III