Mitochondrial dysfunction due to alterations in the mitochondrial genome (mtDNA) has recently attracted much attention, with the finding that mutations in the mitochondrially encoded proteins perturb cell function. Several disorders have been linked to such genetic changes, including a specific diabetic phenotype. Using ethidium bromide (EtBr) that intercalates into mtDNA, we have effectively eliminated functions under the control of mtDNA from the highly differentiated INS-1 insulin-secreting cell line. We have investigated the consequences on insulin secretion, mitochondrial enzyme activity, organelle structure, and membrane polarization in such cells (INS-1 rho0). Under these conditions, the mitochondrial membrane potential fails to hyperpolarize in response to either glucose or methylsuccinate. In agreement with this finding, the morphology of the mitochondria is altered in the presence of EtBr, sharing similarities with mitochondria in which the membrane potential has been collapsed with the protonophore carbonyl cyanide p-trifluoromethoxyphenylhydrazone (FCCP). In addition, there is no effect of either nutrient secretagogue at the level of the plasma membrane potential, although the effect of the depolarizing agent KCl on membrane depolarization is completely preserved. Similarly, glucose and methylsuccinate fail to increase insulin secretion, whereas KCl is still effective. To test further the effects of mtDNA depletion on exocytosis, we permeabilized INS-1 cells with Staphylococcus aureus alpha-toxin, which forms small holes in the plasma membrane. In contrast to control cells, mitochondrial substrates were incapable of stimulating insulin secretion in mtDNA-deficient cells, emphasizing that the defect in secretion lies at the level of mitochondrial function rather than in the exocytotic process. The results indicate the paramount importance of the mitochondria in the downstream effects elicited by exposure to elevated concentrations of nutrient secretagogue.

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