Key player in cell metabolism identified

Published in Nature Cell Biology (NCB), the study shows that the EXD2 protein is critical for the mitochondria, the cell’s powerhouses, to produce energy

Microscopy of the germ stem cells (bright green) of the Drosophila (fruit fly) ovarium of flies lacking EXD2. Flies in the right panel were treated with antioxidants to rescue stem cells. Image: Travis Stracker, IRB Barcelona.
Microscopy of the germ stem cells (bright green) of the Drosophila (fruit fly) ovarium of flies lacking EXD2. Flies in the right panel were treated with antioxidants to rescue stem cells. Image: Travis Stracker, IRB Barcelona.

Researchers from the Genomic Instability and Cancer Laboratory at Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) have identified a key role for EXD2 in protein production in the mitochondria, the cellular organelles responsible for the majority of energy generation.

“We have provided extensive evidence that EXD2 is a mitochondrial protein and that its main function is to facilitate the production of proteins in the mitochondria,” explains Travis H. Stracker, head of the laboratory.

This work challenges the interpretation of previous studies that suggested that EXD2 performs a DNA repair function in the nucleus. “However, at this point we can’t rule out other possible functions”, declares Stracker.

Published in Nature Cell Biology, the study presents the results from a collaborative multidisciplinary approach, using state of the art proteomics, metabolomics, biochemistry, cell biology and the development of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, to pinpoint the function of EXD2.

The Universitat Rovira i Virgili’s participation in the project has been led by Òscar Yanes, an expert in the study of cell metabolism using innovative metabolomic techniques based on mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance. In particular Yanes and his group have helped to determine the importance that this protein has in maintaining cell stability through its antooxidative capacity and the regulation of mitochondrial respiration and energy production.


La microscòpia confocal mostra la co-localització de EXD2 (magenta) amb el ribosoma mitocondrial (groc). L'ADN es tenyeix per definir el nucli (cian).
Confocal microscopy shows co-localization of EXD2 (magenta) with the mitochondrial ribosome (yellow). DNA is stained to define the nucleus (cyan).
Cleaning up the energy production process

Scientists identified the mitochondrial ribosome (or mitoribosome), the cellular machine required for protein production in the mitochondria, as a major interactor of EXD2. “EXD2 targets messenger RNA to keep the mitoribosome “clean” until it is mature and ready to generate proteins. In the absence of EXD2, cells are severely defective for mitochondrial protein production,” explains Joana Silva, first author of the study and former PhD student of the Genomic Instability and Cancer Laboratory.

EXD2’s role in the mitoribosome is critical for suppressing the generation of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), that can arise due to mitochondrial defects, and facilitating normal development in Drosophila. Flies lacking EXD2 showed increased ROS levels, delayed development and reduced fertility.

“The results highlight the complexity of mitochondrial protein production and demonstrate that many levels of regulation remain to be elucidated”, says Stracker. Potential target for metabolic disorders and cancer therapy

These studies may have implications for the understanding and treatment of metabolic disorders, such as diabetes, and cancer. In relation to the latter, in recent years, the importance of mitochondrial energy generation in tumors has been revisited and the inhibition of protein production has been proposed to be a therapeutic target by many groups.

As EXD2 is an enzyme and required for mitochondrial translation, it is possible that targeting it could have antitumoral effects, something that will be tested in future experiments.

This study was supported by the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competiveness (MINECO), as well as the Finnish Cultural Society and the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia that funded the theses of the first two authors.

The study was carried out in collaboration with other laboratories, which made important contributions, including Aidan Doherty from the University of Toronto, Òscar Yanes from CIBERDEM and the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, and Andreu Casali and Lluís Ribas de Pouplana from the Institute for Biomedical Research (IRB Barcelona).

Reference: Joana Silva, Suvi Aivio, Philip A. Knobel, Laura J. Bailey, Andreu Casali, Maria Vinaixa, Isabel Garcia-Cao, Étienne Coyaud, Alexis A. Jourdain, Pablo Perez-Ferreros, Ana M. Rojas, Albert Antolin-Fontes, Sara Samino-Gené, Brian Raught, Acaimo González-Reyes, Lluis Ribas de Pouplana, Aidan J. Doherty, Oscar Yanes and Travis H. Stracker. “EXD2 governs germ stem cell homeostasis and lifespan by promoting mitoribosome integrity and translation”. Nature Cell Biology (2018) https://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41556-017-0016-9

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