Exposure of cultured primary neurons to preformed α-synuclein fibrils (PFFs) leads to the recruitment of endogenous α-synuclein and its templated conversion into fibrillar phosphorylated α-synuclein (pα-synF) aggregates resembling those involved in Parkinson's disease (PD) pathogenesis. Pα-synF was described previously as inclusions morphologically similar to Lewy bodies and Lewy neurites in PD patients. We discovered the existence of a conformationally distinct, nonfibrillar, phosphorylated α-syn species that we named "pα-syn*." We uniquely describe the existence of pα-syn* in PFF-seeded primary neurons, mice brains, and PD patients' brains. Through immunofluorescence and pharmacological manipulation we showed that pα-syn* results from incomplete autophagic degradation of pα-synF. Pα-synF was decorated with autophagic markers, but pα-syn* was not. Western blots revealed that pα-syn* was N- and C-terminally trimmed, resulting in a 12.5-kDa fragment and a SDS-resistant dimer. After lysosomal release, pα-syn* aggregates associated with mitochondria, inducing mitochondrial membrane depolarization, cytochrome C release, and mitochondrial fragmentation visualized by confocal and stimulated emission depletion nanoscopy. Pα-syn* recruited phosphorylated acetyl-CoA carboxylase 1 (ACC1) with which it remarkably colocalized. ACC1 phosphorylation indicates low ATP levels, AMPK activation, and oxidative stress and induces mitochondrial fragmentation via reduced lipoylation. Pα-syn* also colocalized with BiP, a master regulator of the unfolded protein response and a resident protein of mitochondria-associated endoplasmic reticulum membranes that are sites of mitochondrial fission and mitophagy. Pα-syn* aggregates were found in Parkin-positive mitophagic vacuoles and imaged by electron microscopy. Collectively, we showed that pα-syn* induces mitochondrial toxicity and fission, energetic stress, and mitophagy, implicating pα-syn* as a key neurotoxic α-syn species and a therapeutic target.
Keywords: Parkinson’s disease; alpha-synuclein; autophagy; mitochondria; toxicity.