Intercellular transfer of mitochondrial DNA carrying metastasis-enhancing pathogenic mutations from high- to low-metastatic tumor cells and stromal cells via extracellular vesicles

BMC Mol Cell Biol. 2021 Oct 7;22(1):52. doi: 10.1186/s12860-021-00391-5.


Background: Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) carrying certain pathogenic mutations or single nucleotide variants (SNVs) enhances the invasion and metastasis of tumor cells, and some of these mutations are homoplasmic in tumor cells and even in tumor tissues. On the other hand, intercellular transfer of mitochondria and cellular components via extracellular vesicles (EVs) and tunneling nanotubes (TNTs) has recently attracted intense attention in terms of cell-to-cell communication in the tumor microenvironment. It remains unclear whether metastasis-enhancing pathogenic mutant mtDNA in tumor cells is intercellularly transferred between tumor cells and stromal cells. In this study, we investigated whether mtDNA with the NADH dehydrogenase subunit 6 (ND6) G13997A pathogenic mutation in highly metastatic cells can be horizontally transferred to low-metastatic cells and stromal cells in the tumor microenvironment.

Results: When MitoTracker Deep Red-labeled high-metastatic Lewis lung carcinoma A11 cells carrying the ND6 G13997A mtDNA mutation were cocultured with CellLight mitochondria-GFP-labeled low-metastatic P29 cells harboring wild-type mtDNA, bidirectional transfer of red- and green-colored vesicles, probably mitochondria-related EVs, was observed in a time-dependent manner. Similarly, intercellular transfer of mitochondria-related EVs occurred between A11 cells and α-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA)-positive cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs, WA-mFib), macrophages (RAW264.7) and cytotoxic T cells (CTLL-2). Intercellular transfer was suppressed by inhibitors of EV release. The large and small EV fractions (L-EV and S-EV, respectively) prepared from the conditioned medium by differential ultracentrifugation both were found to contain mtDNA, although only S-EVs were efficiently incorporated into the cells. Several subpopulations had evidence of LC3-II and contained degenerated mitochondrial components in the S-EV fraction, signaling to the existence of autophagy-related S-EVs. Interestingly, the S-EV fraction contained a MitoTracker-positive subpopulation, which was inhibited by the respiration inhibitor antimycin A, indicating the presence of mitochondria with membrane potential. It was also demonstrated that mtDNA was transferred into mtDNA-less ρ0 cells after coculture with the S-EV fraction. In syngeneic mouse subcutaneous tumors formed by a mixture of A11 and P29 cells, the mitochondria-related EVs released from A11 cells reached distantly positioned P29 cells and CAFs.

Conclusions: These results suggest that metastasis-enhancing pathogenic mtDNA derived from metastatic tumor cells is transferred to low-metastatic tumor cells and stromal cells via S-EVs in vitro and in the tumor microenvironment, inferring a novel mechanism of enhancement of metastatic potential during tumor progression.

Keywords: Extracellular vesicles; Intercellular transfer; Lung cancer; Metastasis; Mitochondria; Mitochondrial DNA; Mutation; Tumor microenvironment.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Membrane Structures
  • DNA, Mitochondrial* / genetics
  • Extracellular Vesicles* / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Mitochondria / genetics
  • Mutation
  • Nanotubes
  • Stromal Cells


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Tunneling Nanotubes