Redox-optimized ROS balance: A unifying hypothesis

M. A. Aon, S. Cortassa, B. O'Rourke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

240 Scopus citations


While it is generally accepted that mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (ROS) balance depends on the both rate of single electron reduction of O2 to superoxide (O2.-) by the electron transport chain and the rate of scavenging by intracellular antioxidant pathways, considerable controversy exists regarding the conditions leading to oxidative stress in intact cells versus isolated mitochondria. Here, we postulate that mitochondria have been evolutionarily optimized to maximize energy output while keeping ROS overflow to a minimum by operating in an intermediate redox state. We show that at the extremes of reduction or oxidation of the redox couples involved in electron transport (NADH/NAD+) or ROS scavenging (NADPH/NADP+, GSH/GSSG), respectively, ROS balance is lost. This results in a net overflow of ROS that increases as one moves farther away from the optimal redox potential. At more reduced mitochondrial redox potentials, ROS production exceeds scavenging, while under more oxidizing conditions (e.g., at higher workloads) antioxidant defenses can be compromised and eventually overwhelmed. Experimental support for this hypothesis is provided in both cardiomyocytes and in isolated mitochondria from guinea pig hearts. The model reconciles, within a single framework, observations that isolated mitochondria tend to display increased oxidative stress at high reduction potentials (and high mitochondrial membrane potential ΔΨm), whereas intact cardiac cells can display oxidative stress either when mitochondria become more uncoupled (i.e., low ΔΨm) or when mitochondria are maximally reduced (as in ischemia or hypoxia). The continuum described by the model has the potential to account for many disparate experimental observations and also provides a rationale for graded physiological ROS signaling at redox potentials near the minimum.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)865-877
Number of pages13
JournalBiochimica et Biophysica Acta - Bioenergetics
Issue number6-7
StatePublished - Jun 2010


  • Forward electron transport
  • Hypoxia
  • Mild uncoupling
  • Mitochondrial membrane potential
  • Oxidative phosphorylation
  • Oxidative stress
  • Redox potential
  • Reverse electron transport

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Cell Biology


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