Quantitative measurement of mitochondrial membrane potential in cultured cells: calcium-induced de- and hyperpolarization of neuronal mitochondria


A. A. Gerencser: Buck Institute for Research on Aging, 8001 Redwood Blvd, Novato, CA 94945, USA.  Email: agerencser@buckinstitute.org

Key points

  • • Within cells, mitochondria oxidize carbohydrates, and fatty and amino acids to use the released energy to form ATP, and in the process, they also generate reactive oxygen species. Their maximal rates are linked to the magnitude of the mitochondrial membrane potential.
  • • Here we derive a model of fluorescent potentiometric probe dynamics, and on these principles we introduce an absolute quantitative method for assaying mitochondrial membrane potential in millivolts in individual cultured cells.
  • • This is the first micro-scale method to enable measurement of differences in mitochondrial membrane potential between cells with different properties, e.g. size, mitochondrial density and plasma membrane potential, including cases when plasma membrane potential fluctuates.
  • • Mitochondrial membrane potential in cultured rat cortical neurons is −139 mV at rest. In response to electrical stimulation of the cells, it is regulated between −108 mV and −158 mV by concerted increases in energy demand and metabolic activation.


Abstract  Mitochondrial membrane potential (ΔΨM) is a central intermediate in oxidative energy metabolism. Although ΔΨM is routinely measured qualitatively or semi-quantitatively using fluorescent probes, its quantitative assay in intact cells has been limited mostly to slow, bulk-scale radioisotope distribution methods. Here we derive and verify a biophysical model of fluorescent potentiometric probe compartmentation and dynamics using a bis-oxonol-type indicator of plasma membrane potential (ΔΨP) and the ΔΨM probe tetramethylrhodamine methyl ester (TMRM) using fluorescence imaging and voltage clamp. Using this model we introduce a purely fluorescence-based quantitative assay to measure absolute values of ΔΨM in millivolts as they vary in time in individual cells in monolayer culture. The ΔΨP-dependent distribution of the probes is modelled by Eyring rate theory. Solutions of the model are used to deconvolute ΔΨP and ΔΨM in time from the probe fluorescence intensities, taking into account their slow, ΔΨP-dependent redistribution and Nernstian behaviour. The calibration accounts for matrix:cell volume ratio, high- and low-affinity binding, activity coefficients, background fluorescence and optical dilution, allowing comparisons of potentials in cells or cell types differing in these properties. In cultured rat cortical neurons, ΔΨM is −139 mV at rest, and is regulated between −108 mV and −158 mV by concerted increases in ATP demand and Ca2+-dependent metabolic activation. Sensitivity analysis showed that the standard error of the mean in the absolute calibrated values of resting ΔΨM including all biological and systematic measurement errors introduced by the calibration parameters is less than 11 mV. Between samples treated in different ways, the typical equivalent error is ∼5 mV.