• arsenic;
  • human kidney cell line;
  • mitochondria;
  • cell death


The kidney is a known target organ for arsenic and is critical for both arsenic biotransformation and elimination. Previous studies have demonstrated that at high doses (ppm) inorganic arsenic is toxic to mitochondria primarily by affecting cellular respiration. However, the effect of inorganic arsenic on mitochondria after low level exposures is not known, particularly in the kidney. Thus the functional and morphological effects of low level inorganic arsenic were investigated in a human proximal tubular cell line, HK-2. Mitochondrial function was assessed at subcytotoxic concentrations of arsenite (≤ 10 µm) by examining the alteration of the mitochondrial membrane potential using MitoTracker Red, a mitochondrion selective dye. In a subset of cells, subcytotoxic arsenite led to mitochondrial membrane depolarization, which could subsequently lead to permeability transition and apoptosis. Subcytotoxic arsenite also induced translocation of phosphatidylserine, indicative of early-stage apoptosis. To confirm whether subcytotoxic arsenite induces cellular and/or mitochondrial morphological alterations consistent with initiated apoptosis, HK-2 cells were evaluated with transmission electron microscopy. Classic morphology of apoptosis was not observed with subcytotoxic arsenite exposures; however, evidence of necrotic changes in the cytoplasmic structure and mitochondrial morphology were apparent. Therefore, based on depolarization of mitochondria and the externalization of phosphatidylserine, HK-2 cells appear to initiate apoptosis following subcytotoxic arsenite insult, but morphological changes indicate that HK-2 cells fail to complete apoptosis and ultimately undergo necrosis. Therefore, subcytotoxic arsenite can be sufficiently toxic to mitochondria that they lose their ability to keep the cell on course for apoptotic cell death. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.