Imaging in five dimensions: time-dependent membrane potentials in individual mitochondria

Biophys J. 1993 Dec;65(6):2396-407. doi: 10.1016/S0006-3495(93)81318-3.


Because of its importance in the chemiosmotic theory, mitochondrial membrane potential has been the object of many investigations. Significantly, however, quantitative data on how energy transduction might be regulated or perturbed by the physiological state of the cell has only been gathered via indirect studies on isolated mitochondrial suspensions; quantitative studies on individual mitochondria in situ have not been possible because of their small size, their intrinsic motility, and the absence of appropriate analytical reagents. In this article, we combine techniques for rapid, high resolution, quantitative three-dimensional imaging microscopy and mathematical modeling to determine accurate distributions of a potentiometric fluorescent probe between the cytosol and individual mitochondria inside a living cell. Analysis of this distribution via the Nernst equation permits assignment of potentials to each of the imaged mitochondrial membranes. The mitochondrial membrane potentials are distributed over a narrow range centered at -150 mV within the neurites of differentiated neuroblastoma cells. We find that the membrane potential of a single mitochondrion is generally remarkably stable over times of 40-80 s, but significant fluctuations can occasionally be seen. The motility of individual mitochondria is not directly correlated to membrane potential, but mitochondria do become immobile after prolonged treatment with respiratory inhibitors or uncouplers. Thus, three spatial dimensions, a key physiological parameter, and their changes over time are all quantitated for objects at the resolution limit of light microscopy. The methods described may be readily extended to permit investigations of how mitochondrial function is integrated with other processes in the intact cell.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Animals
  • Carbonyl Cyanide p-Trifluoromethoxyphenylhydrazone / pharmacology
  • Cell Line
  • Intracellular Membranes / physiology
  • Membrane Potentials / physiology*
  • Microscopy, Electron / instrumentation
  • Microscopy, Electron / methods
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence / instrumentation
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence / methods
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / physiology*
  • Mitochondria / ultrastructure
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Neurites / physiology*
  • Neurites / ultrastructure
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Time Factors
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • Carbonyl Cyanide p-Trifluoromethoxyphenylhydrazone