Mohr-Tranebjaerg syndrome is a progressive, neurodegenerative disorder caused by loss-of-function mutations in the DDP1/TIMM8A gene. DDP1 belongs to a family of evolutionary conserved proteins that are organized in hetero-oligomeric complexes in the mitochondrial intermembrane space. They mediate the import and insertion of hydrophobic membrane proteins into the mitochondrial inner membrane. All of them share a conserved Cys(4) metal binding site proposed to be required for the formation of zinc fingers. So far, the only missense mutation known to cause a full-blown clinical phenotype is a C66W exchange directly affecting this Cys(4) motif. Here, we show that the mutant human protein is efficiently imported into mitochondria and sorted into the intermembrane space. In contrast to wild-type DDP1, it does not complement the function of its yeast homologue Tim8. The C66W mutation impairs binding of Zn(2+) ions via the Cys(4) motif. As a consequence, the mutated DDP1 is incorrectly folded and loses its ability to assemble into a hetero-hexameric 70-kDa complex with its cognate partner protein human Tim13. Thus, an assembly defect of DDP1 is the molecular basis of Mohr-Tranebjaerg syndrome in patients carrying the C66W mutation.
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