A JOURNAL OF NEUROLOGY
SOD1 targeted to the mitochondrial
intermembrane space prevents motor
neuropathy in the Sod1 knockout mouse
Lindsey R. Fischer,1,* Anissa Igoudjil,2,* Jordi Magrane ´,2Yingjie Li,1Jason M. Hansen,3
Giovanni Manfredi2and Jonathan D. Glass1
1 Department of Neurology, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA
2 Department of Neurology and Neuroscience, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York, NY 10065, USA
3 Department of Paediatrics, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA
*These authors contributed equally to this work.
Correspondence to: Jonathan D. Glass,
Emory Centre for Neurodegenerative Disease,
101 Woodruff Circle,
Suite 6000, Atlanta,
GA 30322, USA
Motor axon degeneration is a critical but poorly understood event leading to weakness and muscle atrophy in motor neuron
diseases. Here, we investigated oxidative stress-mediated axonal degeneration in mice lacking the antioxidant enzyme, Cu,Zn
superoxide dismutase (SOD1). We demonstrate a progressive motor axonopathy in these mice and show that Sod1?/?primary
motor neurons extend short axons in vitro with reduced mitochondrial density. Sod1?/?neurons also show oxidation of mito-
chondrial—but not cytosolic—thioredoxin, suggesting that loss of SOD1 causes preferential oxidative stress in mitochondria, a
primary source of superoxide in cells. SOD1 is widely regarded as the cytosolic isoform of superoxide dismutase, but is also
found in the mitochondrial intermembrane space. The functional significance of SOD1 in the intermembrane space is unknown.
We used a transgenic approach to express SOD1 exclusively in the intermembrane space and found that mitochondrial SOD1 is
sufficient to prevent biochemical and morphological defects in the Sod1?/?model, and to rescue the motor phenotype of these
mice when followed to 12 months of age. These results suggest that SOD1 in the mitochondrial intermembrane space is
fundamental for motor axon maintenance, and implicate oxidative damage initiated at mitochondrial sites in the pathogenesis
of motor axon degeneration.
Keywords: SOD; axon; neuromuscular junction; motor neuron disease; mitochondria
Abbreviations: O2??= superoxide; SOD1 = Cu,Zn superoxide dismutase
Motor axons are the anatomical and functional link between spinal
motor neurons and skeletal muscles. Degeneration of motor axons
at the neuromuscular junction is an early feature of motor neuron
disease in animal models (reviewed in Fischer and Glass, 2007)
and in humans (Bjornskov et al., 1984; Maselli et al., 1993).
Moreover, axonal degeneration is sufficient to cause weakness
doi:10.1093/brain/awq314 Brain 2011: 134; 196–209 |
Received June 27, 2010. Revised August 18, 2010. Accepted September 11, 2010. Advance Access publication November 14, 2010
? The Author (2010). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Guarantors of Brain. All rights reserved.
For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
and muscle atrophy, even in the absence of motor neuron cell
death (Gould et al., 2006; Rouaux et al., 2007; Suzuki et al.,
2007). Axon degeneration is therefore a key pathologic event
and therapeutic target in motor neuron disease, although the
pathogenic mechanisms that initiate axon degeneration are
Evidence from Cu,Zn superoxide dismutase (SOD1) knockout
mice suggests that this antioxidant enzyme is essential for motor
axon maintenance. Sod1?/?mice develop normally and lack
behavioural deficits up to 6 months of age (Reaume et al.,
1996), but ageing Sod1?/?mice perform poorly on the Rotarod
and exhibit accelerated skeletal muscle atrophy (Muller et al.,
2006). Spinal motor neuron and ventral root axon numbers are
normal at 17 and 19 months, respectively (Flood et al., 1999;
Shefner et al., 1999), but muscle fibre atrophy and fibre-type
grouping, suggestive of chronic denervation and reinnervation,
are detectable by 6 months (Flood et al., 1999). EMG recordings
also show spontaneous activity and progressive loss of motor units
(Shefner et al., 1999). Thus, genetic deletion of SOD1 spares
motor neurons and proximal axons, but may be detrimental to
distal motor axons.
SOD1 is one of three superoxide dismutases in mammalian cells
that catalyse the conversion of superoxide (O2??) to H2O2
(McCord and Fridovich, 1969). SOD1 is traditionally considered
to be the cytoplasmic isoform, SOD2 the mitochondrial isoform
and SOD3 the secreted form (Zelko et al., 2002). However, SOD1
is also found in the mitochondrial intermembrane space (Weisiger
and Fridovich, 1973; Sturtz
Vijayvergiya et al., 2005). The functional significance of SOD1
in the intermembrane space remains to be defined, although a
protective role is likely. Mitochondria isolated from Sod1?/?
mouse muscle (Muller et al., 2007; Jang et al., 2010) and
Sod1?/?Caenorhabditis elegans (Yanase et al., 2009) exhibit
increased generation of reactive oxygen species including O2??
and H2O2. Similarly, antisense knockdown of SOD1 in vitro
causes preferential oxidation of mitochondrial—not cytosolic—
proteins, loss of mitochondrial membrane potential and decreased
ATP production (Aquilano et al., 2006). Thus, loss of SOD1 may
result in an accumulation of mitochondrial reactive oxygen species,
leading to oxidative damage and mitochondrial dysfunction.
Here, we demonstrate that targeted replacement of SOD1 only
in the mitochondrial intermembrane space rescues motor axon
outgrowth and normalizes the mitochondrial redox state in
Sod1?/?neurons in vitro, and prevents weakness and neuro-
muscular junction denervation in Sod1?/?mice followed up to
12 months of age. These data suggest that mitochondrial oxida-
tive stress is an underlying cause of distal motor axonopathy, and
demonstrate that localization of SOD1 in the intermembrane
space is sufficient for the survival of motor axons.
et al., 2001; In ˜arrea,2002;
Materials and methods
Sod1?/?mice, generated by Huang and colleagues (1997), were
obtained from Marie Csete (Emory University) (Muller et al., 2006).
Sod1?/?males were crossed with thy1-YFP16 females (Feng et al.,
2000) to obtain Sod1+/?, thy1-YFP16 breeders, expressing yellow
fluorescent protein (YFP) in all motor axons. Both transgenic lines
were in a C57BL/6 background. For ease of description, thy1-YFP16
is omitted from the genotype and expression should be assumed. Mice
were housed in microisolator cages on a 12h light–dark cycle and
given free access to food and water. Genotyping was by standard
polymerase chain reaction analysis on tail-snip DNA. YFP status was
determined by fluorescent examination of epidermal nerve fibres in ear
To generate mitoSOD1 transgenic mice, human SOD1 complemen-
tary DNA was inserted in a prion promoter vector (MoPrP.Xho)
(Borchelt et al., 1996) at the XhoI site, between PrP exons 2 and 3.
The start codon of human SOD1 was removed and substituted by an
in-frame DNA linker of 6 nt, containing a BamHI site and coding for
Gly–Ser. We then inserted a 561nt complementary DNA encoding the
first 187 amino acids of mouse mitofilin (GenBank accession code:
NM_029673) (John et al., 2005) in frame with the 50-end of the
human SOD1 plus linker. The mitofilin complementary DNA was ob-
tained by polymerase chain reaction amplification of a mouse comple-
mentary DNA library using primer sequences derived from the mouse
The plasmid was microinjected into fertilized eggs of B6CBF1 mice.
Offspring harbouring the transgene were identified by polymerase
chain reaction using the following primers: CCGCTCGAGATGCTGCG
GGCGTGTCAG (sense) and CCGCTCGAGTTATTGGGCGATCCCAAT
(antisense) to generate a 1027bp product. Five lines of mitoSOD1
transgenic mice were identified. Male founders were crossed with
B6SJLF1/J females (Jackson).
A two-step mating scheme was used to generate mice expressing
only mitoSOD1. Sod1?/?males were crossed with mitoSOD1 females
to generate F1 heterozygotes (mitoSOD1,Sod1+/?). Sod1+/?and
mitoSOD1,Sod1+/?mice were then crossed to generate the target
genotype (mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?) and littermate controls.
Neuromuscular junction morphology
Tibialis anterior muscle was dissected, pinned in mild stretch and
immersion fixed for 30min in 4% paraformaldehyde at room tempera-
ture. Fixed muscles were cryoprotected in 30% sucrose/phosphate-
buffered saline (48–72h at 4?C), flash frozen in supercooled isopentane
and 35mm frozen sections were cut longitudinally through the entire
muscle. Acetylcholine receptors at the motor endplate were labelled
with Alexa Fluor 555-conjugated a-bungarotoxin (Invitrogen), 1:5000
in phosphate-buffered saline (30min, room temperature). Motor axon
terminals were identified by YFP fluorescence. Innervated, intermediate
and denervated endplates were defined by complete, partial or absent
overlap between nerve terminal and endplate, respectively. All endplates
were evaluated in every fourth section. No difference was seen between
innervation in male and female mice, therefore the data were pooled.
Mitochondrial isolation from mouse
Tissues (brain and spinal cord) were homogenized in a Dounce hom-
ogenizer in MS-EGTA buffer (225mM mannitol, 75mM sucrose,
5mM HEPES, 1mM EGTA, pH 7.4), and centrifuged at 2000g for
5min (4?C). The supernatant was centrifuged at 15000g for 20min to
generate the cytosolic fraction (supernatant) and crude mitochondrial
fraction (pellet). Thecytosolic
(22000g for 20min) to eliminate membrane contamination. The crude
fraction wascentrifuged twice
Mitochondrial SOD1 protects motor axons Brain 2011: 134; 196–209 |
mitochondrial fraction was resuspended and washed twice in MS-EGTA.
To prepare purified mitochondria, the crude mitochondrial pellet
was layered onto 9ml of 23% Percoll in MS-EGTA and centrifuged
at 25000g for 11min. The pellet was resuspended in MS-EGTA
and centrifuged three times at 14000g for 14min. The final purified
mitochondrial pellet was resuspended in MS-EGTA at ?10mg/ml. All
reagents were from Sigma.
Western blot analyses
The expression and mitochondrial localization of mitoSOD1 were
tested by western blot of crude mitochondria prepared from spinal
cord. Proteins in whole homogenates (50mg), cytosol (20mg) and
mitochondria (20mg) were separated on a 12% sodium dodecyl
sulphate polyacrylamide gel, transferred to polyvinylidene difluoride
membranes (BioRad) and immunoblotted with sheep anti-SOD1
(1:5000, Calbiochem), mouse anti-Tim23 (1:5000, Stressgen), goat
Blue native gel electrophoresis
Spinal cord mitochondrial proteins (50mg) were separated on a
10–16% gradient blue native gel as previously described (Schagger
and von Jagow, 1991). After electrophoresis, proteins were transferred
to polyvinylidene difluoride and immunoblotted for SOD1 and core II
subunit of complex III (mouse anti-CIII, 1:2500, Molecular Probes). A
high molecular weight ladder (Amersham) was used to estimate
Alkaline extraction of mitochondrial
Alkaline extraction of mitochondrial proteins was performed as
described (Vijayvergiya et al., 2005). Briefly, mitochondria (50mg)
were incubated in the presence or absence of 0.1M Na2CO3
(pH 11.5), with or without Triton X-100 (1%), for 30min at 4?C,
then centrifuged at 91000g for 25min. The pellet was saved.
Supernatant proteins were precipitated with ice-cold 12% trichloro-
acetic acid and centrifuged at 18000g for 15min, followed by an
ice-cold acetone wash. Pellet and precipitated supernatant proteins
were analysed by western blot as described above.
Mitoplasts were prepared as previously described (Acin-Perez et al.,
2009). Briefly, purified mitochondria (300mg) were suspended in
MS-EGTA, water (1/10 volume) and digitonin (1mg digitonin/5mg
mitochondrial protein), and the mixture was incubated on ice for
45min. KCl (150mM) was then added, followed by incubation for
2min on ice and centrifugation at 18000g for 20min. The mitoplast
pellet was resuspended to 0.5mg/ml in MS-EGTA. The supernatant
containing the post-mitoplast fraction was subjected to trichloroacetic
acid precipitation as described above.
Proteinase K treatment of mitoplasts
Proteinase K treatment of mitoplasts was performed as previously
described (Vijayvergiya et al., 2005). Briefly, mitoplasts (25mg) were
incubated in the presence or absence of proteinase K (20mg/ml), with
or without Triton X-100 (0.1%), for 1h on ice. Proteolysis was
stopped by adding 2mM phenylmethylsulphonyl fluoride.
SOD1 activity: spectrophotometric
SOD1 activity was assessed as previously described (Vives-Bauza et al.,
2007) with minor modifications. The assay measures the reduction of
acetylated cytochrome c by O2??generated by xanthine/xanthine oxi-
dase. All reagents were from Sigma except for xanthine oxidase
(Calbiochem). Spinal cord mitochondria (50mg) and cytosolic fractions
(10mg) were incubated in 1ml of reaction buffer (50mM phosphate
buffer, pH 7.8, 0.1mM EDTA, 1mM NaN3, 100mM xanthine, 2U
xanthine oxidase and 25mM partially acetylated cytochrome c).
Cytochrome c reduction was followed spectrophotometrically at
550nm, at 25?C for 3min. The activity of SOD1 (KCN-insensitive)
was determined by adding 2mM KCN, and subtracting residual activ-
ity from total SOD activity. One unit of SOD activity was defined as
the amount of enzyme required to inhibit the rate of reduction of
cytochrome c by 50%. Note that in measuring SOD1 activity in mito-
chondria it is necessary to minimize the interference associated with
the interaction of cytochrome c with cytochrome c oxidase and cyto-
chrome c reductases, using partially acetylated cytochrome c as
described (Azzi et al., 1975; Kuthan et al., 1986). Nevertheless, we
found some residual cytochrome c reduction in the mitochondria of
Sod1?/?samples (Fig. 5E). This can be explained by the fact that the
preparation of acetylated cytochrome c actually contains up to 40%
non-acetylated cytochrome c, which can react with mitochondrial
oxidases and reductases.
Primary motor neuron culture
Spinal motor neurons were enriched from E12.5 mouse embryos by
density centrifugation (Zhang et al., 2006). Spinal cords were isolated,
incubated in 0.05% trypsin (Worthington, 37?, 10min) and dissociated
by pipetting up and down in neurobasal medium (Invitrogen) contain-
ing 0.1% trypsin inhibitor (Sigma), 100U/ml DNase (Worthington)
and 0.4% bovine serum albumin. Cells were centrifuged through
4% bovine serum albumin (400g, 5min), resuspended and centrifuged
through 10% (v/v) Optiprep (Axis Shield, 700g, 10min). The interface
was aspirated, centrifuged through a second bovine serum albumin
cushion, and resuspended in growth medium consisting of neurobasal
with 2% B27 supplement minus antioxidants (Invitrogen), 2% horse
serum (Invitrogen), 0.5 mM Glutamax (Invitrogen), BDNF, CNTF,
GDNF and NT-3 (10ng/ml, Peprotech). Cells were plated on coverslips
coated with polyornithine (10mg/ml, Sigma) and Matrigel (1:25, BD
Bioscience). By this method, 84.7 ? 4.8% of cells at 24h were immu-
noreactive for the motor neuron marker, Hb9 (1:1000, Abcam).
Individual spinal cords were kept separate during cell isolation and
genotype subsequently determined by polymerase chain reaction.
Axon length was determined by systematic random sampling of cells
along a pre-marked grid. Motor neurons were identified morpho-
logically under phase contrast and photographed at ?20 on an
Olympus IK51 inverted microscope using an Olympus Qcolor3 digital
camera. Axons were manually traced and measured using ImageJ soft-
ware (http://rsb.info.nih.gov/ij/). In cells with multiple processes, the
axon was considered to be the longest process. The average number
of neurons analysed in each of four trials was 130 ? 41 (Sod1+/+),
158 ? 34 (Sod1+/?) and 163 ? 19 (Sod1?/?), or 500–600 neurons
per group (n=4 was used for statistical analysis).
Brain 2011: 134; 196–209L. R. Fischer et al.
Mitochondrial density in axons was evaluated using Mitotracker Red
CM-H2XRos (Invitrogen). Dye was added to cells at 250nM in
serum-free medium (30min, 37?C). Cells were returned to growth
medium for 10min and fixed in pre-warmed 4% paraformaldehyde
(15min, room temperature). Coverslips were inverted onto slides
using anti-fade mounting medium (Vectashield+DAPI, Vector Labs),
and cells were examined under standard fluorescence microscopy.
In some experiments, Mitotracker staining was followed by immuno-
labelling with an antibody specific for human SOD1 (Sigma, 1:500).
Twenty-five neurons per coverslip were selected and photographed
at ?40 magnification by unbiased coverslip scanning. Mitochondrial
density was evaluated morphologically using ImageJ software. Lengths
of individual mitochondria were measured, combined and divided by
the length of the axon. At least three replicates per genotype were
obtained over the course of multiple motor neuron preparations.
Primary cortical neuron cultures
Primary cortical neurons were isolated from E15.5 mouse embryos.
Brains were removed in ice-cold dissecting buffer (2.5mM HEPES,
4mM NaHCO3and 35mM glucose in Hanks’ balanced salt solution)
and cortices were dissected free of subcortical structures and meninges
and incubated in 0.25% Trypsin/EDTA (Sigma), for 15min at 37?C.
Tissue was dissociated in dissection buffer containing 0.1mg/ml tryp-
sin inhibitor (Sigma) and 200U/ml DNase (Worthington). Cells were
pelleted by centrifugation at 218g for 5min and resuspended in
growth medium consisting of neurobasal (Invitrogen), 5% foetal
bovine serum (Atlanta Biologicals), 200mM GlutaMAX (Invitrogen)
and 2% B27 minus antioxidants (Invitrogen). Cells were plated in
poly-L-lysine coated six-well plates at a density of 2?106cells/well.
Individual brains were kept separate during cell isolation and genotype
subsequently determined by polymerase chain reaction on tail-
Thioredoxin redox western analysis
The redox state of thioredoxin-1 (cytosolic) and thioredoxin-2 (mito-
chondrial) was determined by redox western analysis (Halvey et al.,
2005). Primary cortical neurons were washed once with ice-cold
phosphate-buffered saline, incubated in 10% trichloroacetic acid at
4?C for 20min, and removed with a cell scraper. Following centrifu-
gation at 16000g for 2min, the protein pellet was washed in 100%
acetone and resuspended by sonication in derivatization buffer:
acid) (Invitrogen) in 100mM Tris, pH 7.6, 1% sodium dodecyl sul-
phate. Derivatization was allowed to proceed for 1h at room tempera-
ture. Samples were diluted 1:1 in non-reducing sodium dodecyl
sulphate sample buffer (Bio-Rad), boiled and separated on two 15%
polyacrylamide gels run in parallel. Immunoblotting was carried out by
standard methods using goat anti-thioredoxin-1 (1:2500, American
Diagnostica,Stamford, CT, USA)
(1:7500, Invitrogen). Membrane scanning and band densitometry
were performed on an Odyssey infrared imaging system (Li-COR)
using Odyssey software. The redox potential Eh(in mV) was calculated
using the Nernst equation: Eh=E0+(2.303 RT/nF)?log(ox/red),
where E0=?256mV (thioredoxin-1) or ?330mV (thioredoxin-2).
Note that protein levels were not equalized between samples. Only
relative changes between reduced and oxidized bands are of quanti-
Images were captured on a Zeiss LSM 510 NLO META system,
coupled to a Zeiss Axiovert 100M inverted microscope. Neuromuscular
junction z-stacks were obtained with a Plan-Neofluar ?40 (NA 1.3) oil
objective with optical slice thickness of 1mm. Motor neurons were
imaged with a Plan-Neofluar ?20 (NA 0.3) objective or Plan-Neofluar
?100 (NA 1.3) oil objective. Z-stacks were compressed and images
exported using LSM Image Examiner software (Zeiss).
Results are expressed as mean ? SD, and comparisons were made by
ANOVA with Tukey post hoc analysis (a=0.05), unless otherwise spe-
cified, using Prism software (GraphPad).
Loss of SOD1 causes a progressive
Previous studies ofthe Sod1?/?mouseprovide compelling, although
indirect, evidence for a motor axonopathy (Flood et al., 1999;
Shefner et al., 1999). To facilitate morphological analysis of neuro-
muscular junctions, we first crossed Sod1?/?mice (Muller et al.,
2006) with thy1-YFP16 mice (Feng et al., 2000) to generate
mice expressing YFP in all motor axons. Absence of SOD1 protein
and enzymatic activity was verified in Sod1?/?, thy1-YFP16 off-
spring by western blot and SOD1 zymography (Supplementary
We observed progressive hind-limb weakness in Sod1?/?mice,
evidenced by significant loss of grip strength by 12 months
(Fig. 1C). Whereas most Sod1+/+
remain suspended from a wire grid for at least 300s, the mean
latency to fall for Sod1?/?animals was 134s (P 5 0.001).
Sod1?/?mice had obvious difficulty gripping the wire with their
hind limbs, and hind limb grip was typically lost first, followed by
forelimb grip (Supplementary Videos 1–4).
To determine how loss of SOD1 affects distal motor axons,
we examined neuromuscular junction morphology in the tibialis
anterior muscle, which undergoes significant (?50%) atrophy in
20-month-old Sod1?/?mice (Muller et al., 2006). Neuromuscular
junction innervation at 1, 4, 12 and 18 months of age was eval-
uated by the overlap between YFP-positive motor axon terminals
and motor endplates labelled with Alexa Fluor 555-conjugated
a-bungarotoxin (Fig. 1A and B). At 1 month, the tibialis anterior
muscle was fully innervated in Sod1?/?mice. At 4 months,
69.5 ? 6.2% of endplates were innervated in Sod1?/?mice, com-
pared to 97.1 ? 0.9% and 99.6 ? 0.3% in Sod1+/+and Sod1+/?
mice, respectively (P 5 0.001). By 18 months, only 33.9 ? 8.5%
of Sod1?/?endplates were innervated compared to 92.2 ? 2.8%
in Sod1+/+mice and 79.9 ? 15.5% in Sod1+/?mice (P 5 0.001).
This demonstrates that SOD1 is required for maintenance of motor
Mitochondrial SOD1 protects motor axonsBrain 2011: 134; 196–209 |
axons in vivo, and suggests that distal motor axons are sensitive to
oxidative stress-mediated injury.
Axon defects in primary motor neuron
To examine axonal defects intrinsic to Sod1?/?motor neurons, we
cultured primary motor neurons from E12.5 mice in medium free
of standard antioxidant supplements (Fig. 2A). Sod1?/?motor
neurons were short-lived compared with controls. No viable
Sod1?/?cells remained at 72h in culture. At 24h, Sod1?/?
motor neurons had markedly shorter axons compared with con-
trols (Fig. 2C). Mean axon length in Sod1?/?cells (?SEM) was
50?3mm at 24h, compared with 93?5 and 83?3mm for
Sod1+/+and Sod1+/?cells, respectively (P50.001).
Given a previous report of mitochondrial damage in Sod1?/?
cells (Aquilano et al., 2006), we tested whether mitochondrial
density was altered in Sod1?/?axons (Fig. 2B). At 24h in culture,
mitochondria were labelled with Mitotracker Red-CM-H2XRos,
the motor neurons were fixed and individual mitochondria along
the length of the axon were measured. Mitochondrial density
was expressed as the cumulative length of all mitochondria
in the axon, divided by the total length of the axon (Fig. 2D).
Figure 1 Genetic deletion of SOD1 causes progressive denervation at the neuromuscular junction. (A) Confocal projections of tibialis
anterior neuromuscular junctions at 1, 4, 12 and 18 months of age, with motor axons in green (yellow fluorescent protein) and endplates
in red (bungarotoxin). Examples of innervated (1), intermediate (2) and denervated (3) endplates are shown. By 18 months, many
endplates are vacant and show a fragmented morphology consistent with chronic denervation. Fragmentation was not observed in
innervated endplates. Scale bar=20mm. (B) Percent innervated, intermediate and denervated endplates in tibialis anterior. Endplates
(898 ? 203) were assessed per muscle. (**P 5 0.01, ***P 5 0.001 for Sod1?/?versus Sod1+/+; ANOVA with Tukey post hoc test;
n=3–7 animals per group). (C) Latency to fall (s) on grip strength test at 12 months of age. The best performance out of three trials, to a
maximum of 300s, was recorded for each animal (***P 5 0.001; ANOVA with Tukey post hoc test; n=6–9 animals per group).
Brain 2011: 134; 196–209L. R. Fischer et al.
By this approach, a 40% decrease in mitochondrial density
was observed in Sod1?/?axons compared to Sod1+/+axons
(P 5 0.01).
The mitochondrial redox state in
neurons depends on SOD1 expression
We then investigated how deletion of SOD1 in neurons influ-
ences the cytosolic versus mitochondrial redox state. To avoid
introducing oxidation by subcellular fractionation, we took advan-
tage of the fact that mitochondria have a distinct thioredoxin
system from the cytosol, and these can be resolved by using
different antibodies on the same sample. Thioredoxins are small,
multi-functional proteins with a highly conserved active site dithiol
motif (Arne ´r and Holmgren, 2000). They serve as protein disul-
phide reductases and participate in reactive oxygen species
removalvia peroxiredoxins.Redox westernanalysis of
thioredoxin-1 (cytosolic) versus thioredoxin-2 is a sensitive meas-
ure of compartmental changes that can occur independent of
overall cellular oxidation (Halvey et al., 2005; Hansen et al.,
Primary cortical neurons were isolated from Sod1?/?mice and
littermate controls, maintained in culture for 3 days, and harvested
for redox western visualization of oxidized and reduced thiore-
doxin (Fig. 3). Sod1+/+neurons showed a thioredoxin-1 redox
potential of ?273 ? 2mV and a thioredoxin-2 redox potential
of ?365 ? 2mV. These values are consistent with previous data
from other cell types, showing that thioredoxin-1 is relatively oxi-
dized at baseline compared with thioredoxin-2 (Halvey et al.,
2005; Hansen et al., 2006a). The thioredoxin-1 redox potential
in Sod1?/?neurons (?271 ? 1mV) was identical to wild-type.
However, Sod1?/?neurons showed significant oxidation of thior-
edoxin-2, with a redox potential of ?342 ? 7mV, representing a
+23mV shift toward a more oxidizing potential as compared to
controls (P 5 0.01). This demonstrates oxidative stress occurring
Figure 2 Sod1?/?primary motor neurons show reduced axon outgrowth and decreased mitochondrial density. (A) Sod1+/+, Sod1+/?and
Sod1?/?primary motor neurons at 24h in culture, labelled with phosphorylated neurofilament antibody (NF160, green), Hb9 antibody
(red) and DAPI (blue). Scale bar=20mm. (B) Motor neurons labelled with Mitotracker Red CM-H2XRos (24h in culture). A phase contrast
image is shown for the Sod1?/?motor neuron to visualize the full-length of the axon (the terminal is marked with an arrowhead). Scale
bar=25mm. (C) Axon length at 24h. The 500–600 neurons per group were measured. Mean ? SEM from n=4 replicates is shown
(***P 5 0.001; ANOVA with Tukey post hoc test). (D) Mitochondrial density expressed as percentage of axon length occupied by
mitochondria. Twenty-five axons per group were analysed. Mean ? SEM from n=3 replicates is shown (**P 5 0.01; ANOVA with Tukey
post hoc test).
Mitochondrial SOD1 protects motor axonsBrain 2011: 134; 196–209 |
within mitochondria of Sod1?/?neurons, at a time when the cyto-
solic redox state is unchanged.
Targeting of wild-type human SOD1 to
the mitochondrial intermembrane space
To test the hypothesis that SOD1 in the mitochondrial inter-
membrane space plays a role in motor axon maintenance, transgenic
mice were generated that express wild-type human SOD1 targeted
to the intermembrane space (Fig. 4A). We fused the N-terminal
of SOD1 to the mitochondrial targeting sequence of mouse mitofilin,
a mitochondrial inner membrane protein (John et al., 2005). The
34 amino acid mitofilin targeting sequence, cleavable by matrix
metalloproteinases, was followed by 153 amino acids of the
mature protein, including 26 amino acids of the transmembrane
domain and a 2 amino acid linker between mitofilin and the
N-terminus of human SOD1. The resulting construct coded for a
?38kDa chimeric protein (mitoSOD1). This targeting strategy was
aimed at anchoring human SOD1 to the outer side of the mitochon-
drial inner membrane, facing the intermembrane space, while
conferring enough flexibility for SOD1 to fold and mature into
the active enzyme. Tethering to the inner membrane was designed
to prevent unwanted escape of mitoSOD1 into the cytosol. For
of the mouse prion promoter, which drives high expression in brain,
spinal cord, skeletal muscle, heart and kidney, low expression in lung
and spleen and virtually no expression in liver (Wang et al., 2005).
Five lines of transgenic mice with different levels of expression
were obtained. For this study, we utilized the line with the highest
level of mitoSOD1 expression. The pattern of mitoSOD1 expres-
sion in different tissues was investigated by western blot of whole
tissue homogenates (Fig. 4B). The 38kDa mitoSOD1 protein was
expressed in brain and spinal cord of transgenic mice and not in
non-transgenic controls (Fig. 4B). MitoSOD1 was also detected in
skeletal muscle, heart and kidney, while lung, spleen and liver
expressed low to undetectable levels (Supplementary Fig. 2).
Generation and characterization of mice
expressing only mitoSOD1
Next we crossed mitoSOD1 and Sod1?/?mice in a two-step breed-
ing process, to generate mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?mice expressing SOD1
Figure 4 Generation of mice expressing wild-type human
SOD1 targeted to the mitochondrial intermembrane space.
(A) Schematic representation of the strategy to create the
mitoSOD1 transgene cloned in the mouse prion promoter
vector. (B) Detection of mitoSOD1 in non-transgenic (?) and
transgenic (+) mouse tissues by western blot, using a sheep
polyclonal SOD1 antibody that recognizes both transgenic
human mitoSOD1 and endogenous mouse SOD1 (mSOD1).
WT hSOD1=wild-type human SOD1; pre=mitochondrial tar-
geting presequence; TM=transmembrane domain; L=2 amino
acid linker; MMP=matrix metalloproteinases.
Figure 3 Sod1?/?neurons show preferential oxidation of
mitochondrial versus cytosolic thioredoxin. (A) Thioredoxin-1
(cytosolic) redox western. (B) Thioredoxin-2 (mitochondrial)
redox western. Asterisks indicate the increased density of the
oxidized band in Sod1?/?samples. Dithiothreitol (DTT)- and
dipyridyldisulfide (DPS)-treated cells were included to verify
position of reduced and oxidized bands, respectively. (C)
Thioredoxin-1 (Trx1) redox potentials (derived using the Nernst
equation) show no difference between Sod1?/?and controls.
(D) Thioredoxin-2 (Trx2) shows a +23mV shift in Sod1?/?
neurons, toward a more oxidized redox potential. Mean ? SEM
is shown for n=3–6 replicates per group (**P 5 0.01; ANOVA
with Tukey post hoc test). The y-axes are inverted for ease of
Brain 2011: 134; 196–209L. R. Fischer et al.
Sod1+/+mice were used as controls. Fractionation of spinal cord
homogenates confirmed that the mitoSOD1 was detected only in
mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?mice, and was undetectable in the cytosol
(Fig. 5A). As expected, no mouse SOD1 was detected in the mito-
chondria or cytosol of Sod1?/?and mitoSOD1, Sod1?/?spinal
Protein alkaline extraction
mitoSOD1 mice showed the transgenic protein almost exclusively
in the insoluble pellet, whereas cytochrome c, a soluble protein of
the intermembrane space, was found in the supernatant (Fig. 5B).
Most of the mitoSOD1 transgenic protein was released in the
soluble fraction after treatment of the mitochondrial membranes
with Triton X-100. This indicates that mitoSOD1 is anchored to
the mitochondrial inner membrane through its transmembrane
To study the intra-mitochondrial localization of mitoSOD1, mito-
plasts were prepared by removing the mitochondrial outer mem-
brane from mitoSOD1,Sod1+/+brain mitochondria. MitoSOD1
of brain mitochondria from
was associated with mitoplasts and absent from the post-mitoplast
supernatant containing the outer membrane and intermembrane
space fractions (Fig. 5C). Following digestion of mitoplast surface
proteins with proteinase K, most of the mitoSOD1 was degraded
to a smaller ?19kDa fragment. This fragment displayed gel migra-
tion properties roughly corresponding to those of human SOD1,
which is proteinase K resistant (Vijayvergiya et al., 2005), indicating
that proteinase K digested the portion of the protein anchoring
SOD1 to the inner membrane. This result was reproduced by solu-
bilization of mitoplasts with Triton X-100 followed by proteinase K
digestion. Taken together, these results confirm that mitoSOD1 is
bound to the mitochondrial
MitoSOD1 enzyme activity was assessed in whole spinal cord
lysates by standard SOD1 zymography (Supplementary Fig. 3).
An additional band of KCN-sensitive SOD1 activity was identified
strating that mitoSOD1 protein is enzymatically active. To address
Figure 5 MitoSOD1 localization and enzymatic activity. (A) Western blot of spinal cord mitochondria (Mt) and cytosolic fractions
(C) demonstrating mitochondrial localization of mitoSOD1. (B) Protein alkaline extraction. Western blot of the pellet and supernatant
of mitoSOD1,Sod+/+brain mitochondria?Na2CO3or Triton X-100 (TX-100). (C) Proteinase K (PK) digestion. Western blot of mitoplasts
(Mp) ? proteinase K or TX-100. Mitoplasts were prepared from mitoSOD1,Sod1+/+brain purified mitochondria (PMt) treated with
digitonin (PMpS, post-mitoplast supernatant). (D) KCN-sensitive SOD activity in mitochondrial and cytosolic fractions from spinal cord
(*P 5 0.05 and ***P 5 0.0005 versus Sod1+/+,†P 5 0.05 versus Sod1?/?; ANOVA with Fisher post hoc test; n=3–5 animals per
group). The dashed line defines the inhibition of cyt c reduction in mitochondria that is not dependent on SOD1. (E) Complex III (CIII),
detected by an antibody against core II protein, was used as a loading control representative of high molecular weight mitochondrial
protein complexes. (F) Schematic of the proposed mechanism of mitoSOD1 import and maturation in mitochondria. OM=outer
membrane; IM=inner membrane; TOM and TIM=translocators of the outer membrane and inner membrane, respectively;
MTS=mitochondrial targeting sequence; MMP=matrix metalloproteinases; TM=transmembrane domain; Tim23=mitochondrial inner
membrane protein; Akt1=cytosolic soluble protein; cyt c=soluble intermembrane space protein; Hsp60=soluble mitochondrial matrix
protein; ND=activity not detectable.
Mitochondrial SOD1 protects motor axons Brain 2011: 134; 196–209 |
membrane tethering, SOD1 activity was also measured spectropho-
metrically in spinal cord cytosol and intact mitochondrial fractions
(Fig. 5D). We found 3- and 3.5-fold higher SOD1 activity in
mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?and mitoSOD1,Sod1+/+mitochondria, respect-
ively, compared to Sod1+/+. Note that these values were obtained
after subtraction of non-specific cytochrome c reductase activity
present in mitochondria (indicated by the dashed line in Fig. 5D).
KCN-sensitive SOD activity was undetectable in the cytosolic
fraction of mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?spinal cord. These data confirm
that mitoSOD1 is enzymatically active and that its activity is exclu-
sively localized to mitochondria. We also found a moderate but
significant reduction of SOD1 activity in mitoSOD,Sod1+/+cytosol,
as compared to Sod1+/+.
Since the active form of SOD1 is predominantly a dimer (Tainer
et al., 1982; Hornberg et al., 2007), we looked for mitoSOD1
oligomerization by blue native gel electrophoresis and western
blot of spinal cord mitochondria. In this experiment, proteins are
maintained in their native state and separated in a non-denaturing
gel, which allows the preservation of protein complexes that are
detected with specific antibodies. In mitoSOD1,Sod1+/+
mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?mitochondria, we observed a major band
with an estimated size of 100–120kDa (Fig. 5E) and a smear of
higher molecular weight protein complexes, which indicate higher
orders of oligomerization than a simple dimer. Since the monomer
of mitoSOD1 is 38kDa, this result suggests that the transgenic
protein oligomerizes on the mitochondrial IM. In addition, we
observed that mitochondria of mitoSOD1,Sod1+/+contained a
larger amount of oligomeric SOD1 than mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?, sug-
gesting that endogenous SOD1 in mitochondria participates to the
formation of multiple species of oligomeric complexes.
The proposed scheme for import and maturation of mitoSOD1
in mitochondria is shown in Fig. 5F. We suggest that mitoSOD1
enters the intermembrane space through the translocator of the
outer membrane, where the mitochondrial targeting sequence
is engaged in the translocator of the inner membrane, exposed
to the matrix and cleaved by matrix metalloproteinases. Upon
processing, the transmembrane domain allows for the insertion
of the protein in the inner membrane with the SOD1 portion
facing the intermembrane space. We propose that mitoSOD1
folds and acquires metals in the intermembrane space to reach
its mature and enzymatically active state. Active dimers/oligomers
of SOD1 may result from the juxtaposition of adjacent mitoSOD1
molecules on the inner membrane.
MitoSOD1 rescues axon outgrowth
and mitochondrial defects in vitro
Primary motor neurons were cultured from mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?
mice, and mitochondrial localization of human SOD1 was verified
by immunocytochemistry (Fig. 6A). Staining with a monoclonal
antibody specific for human SOD1 revealed a punctate distribu-
tion. This staining was absent in cells negative for the mitoSOD1
transgene(not shown). Double
Red CM-H2XRos revealed precise colocalization of human SOD1
staining with mitochondria.
Axon outgrowth was measured in primary motor neurons at
24 and 48h (Fig. 6B). MitoSOD1 showed a robust protective
effect in mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?motor neurons, restoring growth
characteristics and axon length to wild-type levels. Axon length
Figure 6 MitoSOD1 rescues axon outgrowth and normalizes
mitochondrial density in Sod1?/?primary motor neurons. (A)
Mitochondrial localization of mitoSOD1 was verified by double
labelling for human SOD1 (Sigma antibody, in green) and
Mitotracker Red CM-H2XRos. A representative
mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?motor neuron (24h) is shown. Scale
bar=10mm (inset 5mm). (B) Axon length at 24 and 48h in cul-
ture (24h: *P 5 0.05, Sod1?/?versus all other genotypes; 48h:
***P 5 0.001, Sod1?/?versus all other genotypes; P 4 0.05
for all other comparisons; ANOVA with Tukey post hoc test). (C)
Mitochondrial density, calculated as the summed length of all
mitochondria in the axon, divided by the axon length
(**P 5 0.01, Sod1?/?versus all other genotypes; ANOVA with
Tukey post hoc test). In B and C, mean ? SEM is shown from
multiple motor neuron preparations, needed to generate at least
n=3 replicates per genotype. (D) Thioredoxin-2 redox western
from cortical neurons (72h in culture). Oxidation of thioredoxin-
2 (asterisks) is attenuated in mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?neurons. Note
that protein loading was not equalized between samples (refer
to ‘Methods’ section).
Brain 2011: 134; 196–209L. R. Fischer et al.
at 24h (mean ? SEM) in Sod1?/?motor neurons was 47 ? 4mm,
compared with 78 ? 6mm in mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?motor neurons
(P 5 0.05). At 48h, Sod1?/?motor axons were 34 ? 2mm in
length, while mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?motor axons doubled in length
to 169 ? 19mm (P 5 0.001). Thus, mitoSOD1 is properly loca-
lized to motor neuron mitochondria in vitro and rescues
Sod1?/?axon outgrowth. MitoSOD1 also normalized mitochon-
drial density in mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?motor axons (Fig. 6C), and
suppressed thioredoxin-2 oxidation in mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?cortical
neurons (Fig. 6D).
MitoSOD1 preserves neuromuscular
junction integrity and grip strength
Cohorts of Sod1?/?and mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?mice (and littermate
controls) were followed to 12 months of age for assessment of
Morphological analysis of neuromuscular junction in tibialis anterior
muscle showed a robust protective effect of mitoSOD1 at 4, 8 and
12 months of age (Fig. 7A and B). At 4 months, 92.5 ? 0.3% of
endplates were fully innervated in mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?mice, which
were indistinguishable from controls (92.9 ? 1%). As the animals
aged to 8 and 12 months, mitoSOD1 Sod1?/?neuromuscular
junctions remained fully innervated.
Similarly, on grip strength analysis, mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?mice
performed as well as controls, compared to Sod1?/?littermates
that showed a significantly reduced latency to fall (Fig. 7C). These
data demonstrate that mitoSOD1 is sufficient to prevent both the
pathological and phenotypical hallmarks of motor axonopathy in
Altered mitochondrial function and dynamics have emerged as
a major cause of axonal degeneration in peripheral neuropathy and
motor neuron disease (Baloh, 2008; Magrane ´ and Manfredi, 2009).
Here, we investigated how SOD1 expression in the mitochondrial
intermembrane space influences motor axon survival. A pro-
tective function for SOD1 in the intermembrane space has
been suggested by reports of mitochondrial oxidative stress and
Figure 7 MitoSOD1 prevents denervation at the neuromuscular junction and rescues the Sod1?/?phenotype. (A) Representative images
of neuromuscular junctions from tibialis anterior at 12 months. Numerous intermediate (asterisks) and denervated (arrowheads) endplates
are seen in Sod1?/?mice, but are rarely observed in control animals or in mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?mice (scale bar=50mm). (B) Quantitative
comparison of neuromuscular junction innervation at 4, 8 and 12 months of age. No significant difference was seen between
mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?, Sod1+/+and mitoSOD1,Sod1+/+mice at any time point. Endplates (964 ? 105) were assessed per muscle
(***P 5 0.001 for Sod1?/?versus all other genotypes; ANOVA with Tukey post hoc test; n=3 mice per group). (C) Latency to fall
on grip strength testing at 12 months of age (*P 5 0.05; ANOVA with Tukey post hoc test; n=3–4 per group).
Mitochondrial SOD1 protects motor axonsBrain 2011: 134; 196–209 |
oxidative damage due to deletion of SOD1 (Aquilano et al., 2006;
Muller et al., 2007; Jang et al., 2010), although one group reported
that SOD1 potentiates mitochondrial reactive oxygen species
generation due to respiratory chain inhibition (Goldsteins et al.,
2008). None of these studies addressed the functional effect of
intermembrane space-localized SOD1 on oxidative stress-mediated
Mitochondrial superoxide production
and intermembrane space SOD1
The protective effect of mitoSOD1 suggests that SOD1 in the inter-
membrane space is important for regulating physiologic O2??levels.
The major source of intracellular O2??production is the electron
transport chain, located along the mitochondrial inner membrane.
Complex I releases O2??into the mitochondrial matrix (the site of
SOD2 expression), and complex III releases O2??bidirectionally into
the matrix and intermembrane space (Han et al., 2001; Muller et al.,
2004). SOD1 may, therefore, play a protective role by neutralizing
complex III-derived O2??in the intermembrane space. This is
supported by our finding of thioredoxin-2 oxidation in the setting
of a normal thioredoxin-1 redox potential, and by a previous report
of preferential protein oxidation in mitochondria, rather than the
cytosol, following SOD1 knockdown (Aquilano et al., 2006).
Our data suggest that loss of SOD1, at least acutely, causes a
redox imbalance within mitochondria that is not transmitted to the
cytosol. Previous reports of increased mitochondrial reactive
oxygen species release in Sod1?/?mice and C. elegans did not
address the question of the cytosolic redox state (Muller et al.,
2007; Yanase et al., 2009; Jang et al., 2010). Elchuri and
colleagues (2005) measured cytosolic and mitochondrial aconitase
activity in Sod1?/?mouse liver, and found a significant decrease
in the activity of both enzymes with age, suggesting an excess
of O2??in both compartments. Whether cytosolic aconitase inacti-
vation in liver represents spilling of mitochondrial O2??into the
cytosol, or excess O2??from other typically minor sources, such as
cellular oxidases and cytochrome P450s, is unclear.
We cannot exclude the possibility that mitoSOD1 in the inter-
membrane space may be scavenging O2??generated by other
sources, suchas membrane-associated
However, O2??is unlikely to diffuse far from its site of production
without undergoing reactions to produce other reactive oxygen
species. Moreover, negatively charged O2??cannot freely diffuse
across lipid bilayers (Gus’kova et al., 1984), although it is trans-
mitted by voltage-dependent anion channels (Han et al., 2003),
and a small fraction exists in the membrane permeable protonated
form (HO2?) at neutral pH (Halliwell and Gutteridge, 1990). O2??
may also spontaneously convert to membrane-permeable H2O2at
a rate 4-fold slower than the SOD1-catalysed reaction. However,
excess cytosolic H2O2 would be detected as thioredoxin-1
oxidation in our assay, since both thioredoxin-1 and thioredoxin-
2 are oxidized by H2O2(Hansen et al., 2006b).
The contribution of SOD1 to O2??neutralization from other
sources could be tested by alternative targeting strategies, taking
care to prevent SOD1 from being accessible for mitochondrial
import. For example, SOD1 could be tethered to the inner face
of the plasma membrane or targeted to the endoplasmic reticu-
lum. Further analysis is also needed to define the compartmental
redox changes leading to denervation in vivo, although subcellular
fractionation analysis of neuromuscular junction contents is
not feasible with current techniques. New methods for assessing
mitochondrial versus cytosolic redox state at the neuromuscular
junction in vivo are needed.
This study also raises the question of the relative roles of SOD1
and SOD2 in maintaining the mitochondrial redox state and in
motor axon maintenance. Loss of SOD2 in mice causes neonatal
lethality associated with CNS and cardiac pathology and extensive
mitochondrial damage, demonstrating a vital role in development
(Lebovitz et al., 1996). Conditional knockout of SOD2 in adult
motor neurons does not cause motor neuron loss, denervation
or muscle atrophy up to 9 months of age, although it is associated
with accelerated axon degeneration following nerve transection
(Misawa et al., 2006). We did not directly address how
mitoSOD1 affected SOD2 levels or activity in the current study,
but SOD2 activity was previously shown to be unaffected in
Sod1?/?mice (Muller et al., 2006), and is therefore unlikely to
account for our observation of preferential mitochondrial redox
changes in this model.
Mitochondrial SOD1 import
Like many other intermembrane space proteins, native SOD1 lacks
a canonical mitochondrial targeting sequence. Mitochondrial import
of SOD1 depends on the level of copper chaperone for SOD1 in
mitochondria, which in turn depends on oxygen levels and import
via the Mia40/Erv1 disulphide relay system (Kawamata and
Manfredi, 2008; Reddehase et al., 2009). As a consequence, mito-
chondrial localization of endogenous SOD1 cannot be experimen-
tally manipulated without influencing the mitochondrial localization
of other proteins.
An artificial targeting approach was therefore required to
express SOD1 exclusively in the intermembrane space. The mito-
filin targeting sequence was chosen because it creates an integral
membrane protein, anchoring SOD1 to the outer face of the inner
mitochondrial membrane. Endogenous SOD1 is normally thought
to be soluble in the intermembrane space, and can be released
from mitochondria due to spontaneous increases in outer mem-
brane permeability (Li et al., 2006). Subcellular fractionation stu-
dies in mitoSOD1,Sod1?/?tissues demonstrate that anchoring of
mitoSOD1 effectively prevents unwanted release into the cytosol.
SOD1 activity assays in isolated (intact) mitochondria also verify
that mitoSOD1 is enzymatically active; therefore, tethering SOD1
to the inner membrane does not abolish its activity. Moreover,
native gel electrophoresis demonstrates that mitoSOD1 is capable
of oligomerization. Whether this accounts for measured SOD1
activity remains to be seen, but is not strictly required, as isolated
SOD1 monomers retain ?10% activity compared to SOD1 dimers
(Bertini et al., 1994).
The expression of mitoSOD1 in mitoSOD1,Sod1+/+spinal cord
results in a modest but significant decrease of cytosolic SOD1
activity as compared to Sod1+/+mice (Fig. 5D). The cause for
this reduction is unknown, but one hypothesis is that the increased
Brain 2011: 134; 196–209L. R. Fischer et al.
amount of SOD1 localized in the intermembrane space may de-
crease the amounts of copper or copper chaperone for SOD1
available for the maturation and function of endogenous SOD1
in the cytosol (Kawamata and Manfredi, 2008). This change was
insufficient to cause a phenotypic change in MitoSOD1,Sod1+/+
mice, which was indistinguishable from wild-type controls in
Mitochondrial defects and motor
The spatiotemporal sequence of motor pathology has been inves-
tigated in numerous mouse models of motor neuron disease,
including mutant SOD1-mediated familial amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis (Fischer et al., 2004; Pun et al., 2006), spinal muscular
atrophy (Murray et al., 2008), progressive motoneuropathy
(Holtmann et al., 1999) and others (reviewed in Fischer and
Glass, 2007). Distal axonal degeneration, or ‘dying-back’ at the
neuromuscular junction is an early pathological feature in these
models and appears to correlate most closely with disease progres-
sion. Here, we report progressive denervation in Sod1?/?mice
reminiscent of these traditional models of motor neuron disease,
occurring in the setting of chronic oxidative stress.
Maintenance of extensive axonal processes relies on proper traf-
ficking and function of mitochondria. For example, mutations in
MFN2 and GDAP1, regulators of mitochondrial fission and fusion,
cause peripheral neuropathy in Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease
(Niemann et al., 2005; Baloh et al., 2007). In Drosophila, inacti-
vation of dMiro, a cargo adaptor for anterograde mitochondrial
transport, causes accumulation of mitochondria in motor neuron
cell bodies and depletion in axons, leading to morphological
abnormalities at the neuromuscular junction (Guo et al., 2005).
Exposure to the mitochondrial toxin, rotenone (a complex I inhibi-
tor), has also been shown to cause axonal degeneration in vitro
(Press and Milbrandt, 2008).
Growing evidence suggests that aberrant mitochondrial traffick-
ing and mitochondrial dysfunction promote distal axonal degener-
ationin motorneuron disease,
mechanism(s) are less clear. Biochemical and structural defects in
mitochondria are well described in mutant SOD1 models of famil-
ial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Kong and Xu, 1998; Mattiazzi
et al., 2002; Menzies et al., 2002), in which mutant SOD1 accu-
mulates and forms insoluble aggregates in mitochondria (Liu et al.,
2004). Alterations in axonal transport of mitochondria are also
seen in mutant SOD1 models, and abnormal mitochondrial clus-
tering and a relative depletion of mitochondria in axons have been
Sotelo-Silveira et al., 2009). This parallels anecdotal observations
from human amyotrophic lateral sclerosis showing abnormal mito-
chondrial clustering and mitochondrial accumulation in proximal
axons and cell bodies of motor neurons (Sasaki and Iwata,
2007). Primary culture models of spinal muscular atrophy demon-
strate diminished ATP production, mitochondrial depolarization
and reduced mitochondrial density in axons (Acsadi et al., 2009;
Wen et al., 2010). Similar findings have also been reported in
models of spinal and bulbar muscular atrophy (Piccioni et al.,
although the pathogenic
2002; Ranganathan et al., 2009). Thus despite having different
upstream causes, mitochondrial pathology appears to lie along a
final common pathway of motor axon degeneration.
In the current study, we report a 40% decrease in mitochondrial
mitoSOD1. We utilized a dye that accumulates in polarized mito-
chondria, and therefore we cannot exclude that mitochondria
were still present in Sod1?/?axons in the depolarized state.
Further investigation is needed to determine the link between oxi-
dative stress and altered mitochondrial trafficking in this model,
and to investigate whether mitochondria are depleted in motor
axon terminals prior to denervation in vivo. Importantly, we dem-
onstrate that mitochondrial-targeted intervention in this model is
sufficient to restore the density of polarized mitochondria in axons
and to prevent denervation in vivo. It is unclear if mitoSOD1
would be protective in other models of motor neuropathy,
where endogenous SOD1 expression is normal, although may be
beneficial in models with a strong oxidative stress component.
Targeted replacement of SOD1 in the mitochondrial intermem-
brane space is sufficient for robust protection against motor axo-
nopathy and mitochondrial abnormalities in Sod1?/?
neurons. This suggests that mitochondrial damage is an underlying
cause of distal motor axonopathy in Sod1?/?mice. Moreover, the
functional requirement for SOD1 in motor axons may be based on
a protective role in mitochondria.
We thank Marie Csete for providing Sod1?/?breeders, Seneshaw
Asress for technical assistance and Wilfried Rossoll and Fang Wu
for instruction on primary cultures.
Robert Packard Centre for ALS Research (to G.M. and J.G.); and
the National Institutes of Health (grant numbers T32-ES12870 to
L.F., R01-NS051419 to G.M. and R01-NS062055 to G.M.).
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Mitochondrial SOD1 protects motor axons Brain 2011: 134; 196–209 |