Mitochondrial dysfunction has been implicated in many pathological conditions and diseases. The normal functioning of mitochondria relies on maintaining the inner mitochondrial membrane potential (also known as ΔΨm) that is essential for ATP synthesis, Ca2+ homeostasis, redox balance, and regulation of other key signaling pathways such as mitophagy and apoptosis. However, the detailed mechanisms by which ΔΨm regulates cellular function remain incompletely understood, partially because of the difficulty of manipulating ΔΨm with spatiotemporal resolution, reversibility, or cell type specificity. To address this need, we have developed a next generation optogenetic-based technique for controllable mitochondrial depolarization with light. We demonstrate successful targeting of the heterologous channelrhodopsin-2 fusion protein to the inner mitochondrial membrane and formation of functional cationic channels capable of light-induced selective ΔΨm depolarization and mitochondrial autophagy. Importantly, we for the first time, to our knowledge, show that optogenetic-mediated mitochondrial depolarization can be well controlled to differentially influence the fate of cells expressing mitochondrial channelrhodopsin-2; whereas sustained moderate light illumination induces substantial apoptotic cell death, transient mild light illumination elicits cytoprotection via mitochondrial preconditioning. Finally, we show that Parkin overexpression exacerbates, instead of ameliorating, mitochondrial depolarization-mediated cell death in HeLa cells. In summary, we provide evidence that the described mitochondrial-targeted optogenetics may have a broad application for studying the role of mitochondria in regulating cell function and fate decision.
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