A critique of the use of inhibitors to estimate partitioning of electrons between mitochondrial respiratory pathways in plants


A. H. Millar (corresponding author).


The contribution of individual plant mitochondrial respiratory pathways to total respiration is commonly assessed by titration with specific inhibitors of different components in the branched electron transport chain. A pathway's contribution is equal to the activity when the other branch is blocked by an inhibitor multiplied by the degree (0-1.0) to which this activity is engaged when both pathways are operating. According to Bahr and Bonner (1973. J. Biol. Chem. 218: 3441–3445) the plot of the activities of identical titrations, one performed in the absence and the other in the presence of a specific inhibitor of the other branch of the respiratory chain, yields a straight line whose slope indicates the engagement of the titrated pathway during uninhibited respiration. An initial slope of zero may occur if electron flux is diverted between pathways during titrations. However, beyond the breakpoint (representing the point of pathway saturation), a straight line is obtained with a slope representing engagement. This technique assumes that the kinetics of inhibiting a specific component of the respiratory chain are independent of the absolute rate of electron flux through the total pathway. To test this assumption, the activity of respiratory pathways in isolated soybean (Glycine max [L]. Merr. cv. Stevens) mitochondria was titrated with specific inhibitors of the cytochrome and alternative oxidases. Under these conditions, the electron flux through a given pathway was manipulated by poising the rate of succinate oxidation with the succinate dehydrogenase inhibitor malonate. Construction of activity plots in the presence versus absence of malonate failed to result in straight lines for either KCN (when titrating the cytochrome pathway) or salicylhydroxamic acid (when titrating the alternative pathway). Rather, the resultant plots were always curvilinear whenever the activity in the presence of malonate divided by the activity in the absence of malonate was less than 1.0. In no case could the real engagement of the pathway be precisely estimated from the titration data. Titrations of cytochrome pathway activity in isolated potato tuber (Solanum tuberosum L. cv. Sabago and Canabex) mitochondria (which lack the alternative oxidase) showed that as the inhibitor concentration was increased, so did the reduction status of the ubiquinone pool, to a new steady state. The dependence of inhibition kinetics on the rate of flux through the pathway, and the increase in ubiquinone pool reduction upon KCN addition, are explained in terms of the elasticity of component enzymes as outlined in the theory of metabolic control analysis. The implications of this finding for the use of titrations to estimate engagement of plant respiratory pathways are discussed.