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This article has been peer reviewed. It is the author’s final published version in Journal of Biological Chemistry, Volume 291, Issue 19, May 2016, Pages 10426-10436.

The published version is available at DOI: 10.1074/jbc.M115.697789. Copyright © Wiley


The intrinsic apoptosis pathway occurs through the release of mitochondrial cytochrome c to the cytosol, where it promotes activation of the caspase family of proteases. The observation that tRNA binds to cytochrome c revealed a previously unexpected mode of apoptotic regulation. However, the molecular characteristics of this interaction, and its impact on each interaction partner, are not well understood. Using a novel fluorescence assay, we show here that cytochrome c binds to tRNA with an affinity comparable with other tRNA-protein binding interactions and with a molecular ratio of ∼3:1. Cytochrome c recognizes the tertiary structural features of tRNA, particularly in the core region. This binding is independent of the charging state of tRNA but is regulated by the redox state of cytochrome c. Compared with reduced cytochrome c, oxidized cytochrome c binds to tRNA with a weaker affinity, which correlates with its stronger pro-apoptotic activity. tRNA binding both facilitates cytochrome c reduction and inhibits the peroxidase activity of cytochrome c, which is involved in its release from mitochondria. Together, these findings provide new insights into the cytochrome c-tRNA interaction and apoptotic regulation.

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