New & Noteworthy

A Heartfelt Need for Copper

March 6, 2014

Imagine the heater at your house is run by a homemade copper-zinc battery.  You are counting on a delivery of a copper solution that will keep the thing going.  Unfortunately it fails to come, which means the battery doesn’t work and you are left out in the cold. 

This copper might one day help people with certain diseases and we have yeast to thank for helping us find it. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Turns out that something similar can happen in cells too.  The respiratory chain that makes most of our energy needs copper to work.  In a recent study, Ghosh and coworkers showed that if Coa6p doesn’t do its job delivering copper to the respiratory chain, the cell can’t make enough energy.

This isn’t just interesting biology.  In this same study, the researchers showed that mutations in the COA6 gene cause devastating disease in humans and zebrafish. And their discovery that added copper can cure the “disease” in yeast just might have therapeutic applications for humans.

The respiratory chain is a group of large enzyme complexes that sit in the mitochondrial inner membrane and pass electrons from one to another during cellular respiration. This process generates most of the energy that a cell needs.  Hundreds of genes, in both the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes, are involved in keeping this respiratory chain working.

Yeast has been the ideal experimental organism for studying these genes, because it can survive just fine without respiration. If it can’t respire for any reason, yeast simply switches over to fermentation, generating the alcohol and CO2 byproducts that we know and love.

Human cells aren’t as versatile though. Genes involved in respiration can cause mitochondrial respiratory chain disease (MRCD) when mutated. This is one of the most common kinds of genetic defect, with over 100 different genes known so far that can cause this phenotype.

Ghosh and colleagues wondered whether there were as-yet-unidentified human genes involved in maintaining the respiratory chain. They reasoned that any such genes would be highly conserved across species, because they are so important to life, and that the proteins they encoded would localize to mitochondria.

One of the candidates, C1orf31, caught their eye for a couple of reasons.  First, some variations in this gene had been found in the DNA of a MRCD patient.  And second, the yeast homolog, COA6, encoded a mitochondrial protein that had been implicated in assembly of one of the respiratory complexes, Complex IV or cytochrome c oxidase.

They first did some more detailed characterization of COA6 in yeast.  They were able to verify that the coa6 null mutant had reduced respiratory growth because it had lower levels of fully assembled Complex IV.

They also looked to see what happens in human cell culture.  When they knocked down expression of the human homolog, they also saw less assembly of Complex IV. This suggested that the function of this protein is conserved across species.

Next they turned to a sequencing study of an MRCD patient who had, sadly, died of a heart defect (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) before reaching his first birthday. The sequence showed a mutation in a conserved cysteine-containing motif of COA6. To see whether this might be the cause of the defect, they created the analogous mutation in yeast COA6. The mutant protein was completely nonfunctional in yeast.

To nail down the physiological role of COA6 in a multicellular organism, they turned to zebrafish. The embryos of these fish are transparent, so it’s easy to follow organ development. Given the phenotype, the fact that they can live without a functional cardiovascular system for a few days after fertilization was important too.

When the researchers knocked down expression of COA6 in zebrafish, they found that the embryos’ hearts failed to develop normally and they eventually died. The abnormal development of the fish hearts paralleled that seen in the human MRCD patient carrying the C1orf31/COA6 mutation. And reduced levels of Complex IV were present in the fish embryos.

Going back to yeast for one more experiment, Ghosh and colleagues decided to see whether Coa6p might be involved in delivering copper to Complex IV. They knew that Complex IV uses copper ions as a cofactor, and furthermore Coa6p had similarities to several other yeast proteins that are known to be involved in the copper delivery.

They tested this by supplying the coa6 null mutant with large amounts of copper. Sure enough, its respiratory growth defect and Complex IV assembly problems were reversed.  The delivery of copper kept the energy flowing in these cells. And this result showed that Coa6p is involved in getting copper to Complex IV.

These experiments showcase the need for model organism research even in the face of ever more sophisticated techniques applied to human cells. The mutation in human C1orf31/COA6 was discovered in a next-generation sequencing study, but yeast genetics established the relationship between the mutation and its phenotype. The zebrafish system allowed the researchers to follow the effects of the mutation in an embryo from the earliest moments after fertilization. And the rescue of the yeast mutant by copper supplementation offers an intriguing therapeutic possibility for some types of MRCD. Just another testament to the awesome power of model organism research!

YeastMine now lets you explore human homologs and disease phenotypes.  Enter “COA6” into the template Yeast Gene -> OMIM Human Homolog(s) -> OMIM Disease Phenotype(s) to link to the Gene page for human COA6 (the connection between COA6 and disease is too new to be represented in OMIM).  To browse some diseases related to mitochondrial function, enter “mitochondrial” into the template OMIM Disease Phenotype(s) -> Human Gene(s) -> Yeast Homolog(s).