Chemoptogenetic ablation of neuronal mitochondria in vivo with spatiotemporal precision and controllable severity

Elife. 2020 Mar 17;9:e51845. doi: 10.7554/eLife.51845.


Mitochondrial dysfunction is implicated in the pathogenesis of multiple neurological diseases, but elucidation of underlying mechanisms is limited experimentally by the inability to damage specific mitochondria in defined neuronal groups. We developed a precision chemoptogenetic approach to target neuronal mitochondria in the intact nervous system in vivo. MG2I, a chemical fluorogen, produces singlet oxygen when bound to the fluorogen-activating protein dL5** and exposed to far-red light. Transgenic zebrafish expressing dL5** within neuronal mitochondria showed dramatic MG2I- and light-dependent neurobehavioral deficits, caused by neuronal bioenergetic crisis and acute neuronal depolarization. These abnormalities resulted from loss of neuronal respiration, associated with mitochondrial fragmentation, swelling and elimination of cristae. Remaining cellular ultrastructure was preserved initially, but cellular pathology downstream of mitochondrial damage eventually culminated in neuronal death. Our work provides powerful new chemoptogenetic tools for investigating mitochondrial homeostasis and pathophysiology and shows a direct relationship between mitochondrial function, neuronal biogenetics and whole-animal behavior.

Keywords: biochemistry; cell death; chemical biology; chemoptogenetics; mitochondria; motor function; neuroscience; respiration; zebrafish.

Plain language summary

Most life processes require the energy produced by small cellular compartments called mitochondria. Many internal and external factors can harm these miniature powerhouses, potentially leading to cell death. For instance, in patients with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, dying neurons often show mitochondrial damage. However, it is unclear exactly how injured mitochondria trigger the demise of these cells. Gaining a better understanding of this process requires studying the impact of mitochondrial damage in live neurons, something that is still difficult to do. As a response to this challenge, Xie, Jiao, Bai, Ilin et al. designed a new tool that can specifically injure mitochondria in the neurons of live zebrafish larvae at will, and fine-tune the amount of damage inflicted. The zebrafish are genetically engineered so that the mitochondria in their neurons carry a protein which can bind to a chemical compound called MG2I. When attached to each other, MG2I and the protein respond to far-red light by locally creating highly damaging chemicals. This means that whenever far-red light is shone onto the larvae, mitochondria in their neurons are harmed – the brighter the light, the stronger the damage. Zebrafish larvae exposed to these conditions immediately stopped swimming: mitochondria in their neurons could not produce enough energy and these cells could therefore no longer communicate properly. The neurons then started to die about 24 hours after exposure to the light, suggesting that the mitochondrial damage triggered other downstream processes that culminated in cell death. This new light-controlled tool could help to understand the consequences of mitochondrial damage, potentially revealing new ways to rescue impaired neurons in patients with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. In the future, the method could be adapted to work in any type of cell and deactivate other cell compartments, so that it can be used to study many types of diseases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Triphosphate / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Animals, Genetically Modified
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Electrophysiology
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Gene Expression Regulation / drug effects
  • Gene Expression Regulation / radiation effects
  • Light
  • Mitochondria
  • Motor Activity
  • Neurons
  • Optogenetics / instrumentation*
  • Optogenetics / methods*
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Single-Cell Analysis
  • Spatio-Temporal Analysis
  • Zebrafish


  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Adenosine Triphosphate