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Genetics and Molecular Biology

Print version ISSN 1415-4757On-line version ISSN 1678-4685

Genet. Mol. Biol. vol.24 no.1-4 São Paulo Jan./Dec. 2001 

Sugarcane genes related to mitochondrial function


Ghislaine V. Fonseca1, José Humberto M. Tambor,1,2 Marina P. Nobrega1, Rafael Santos1 and Francisco G. Nobrega1*
1Instituto de Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento (IP&D) Universidade do Vale do Paraíba (UNIVAP), 12244-000 São José dos Campos, SP, Brazil.
2Microbiology Graduate Program, ICB/USP, São Paulo, SP, Brazil.
Send correspondence to Francisco G. Nobrega. E-mail:




Mitochondria function as metabolic powerhouses by generating energy through oxidative phosphorylation and have become the focus of renewed interest due to progress in understanding the subtleties of their biogenesis and the discovery of the important roles which these organelles play in senescence, cell death and the assembly of iron-sulfur (Fe/S) centers. Using proteins from the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Homo sapiens and Arabidopsis thaliana we searched the sugarcane expressed sequence tag (SUCEST) database for the presence of expressed sequence tags (ESTs) with similarity to nuclear genes related to mitochondrial functions. Starting with 869 protein sequences, we searched for sugarcane EST counterparts to these proteins using the basic local alignment search tool TBLASTN similarity searching program run against 260,781 sugarcane ESTs contained in 81,223 clusters. We were able to recover 367 clusters likely to represent sugarcane orthologues of the corresponding genes from S. cerevisiae, H. sapiens and A. thaliana with E-value £ 10-10. Gene products belonging to all functional categories related to mitochondrial functions were found and this allowed us to produce an overview of the nuclear genes required for sugarcane mitochondrial biogenesis and function as well as providing a starting point for detailed analysis of sugarcane gene structure and physiology.




Mitochondria play a central role in the life of eukaryotic organisms because of their role in respiration, a fundamental process for most nucleated cells (Saraste, 1999). The plant cell is a particularly complex environment, with individual genomes enclosed in the nucleus, the mitochondrion and the chloroplast. These genomes interact by means of specific gene products to ensure proper physiologic homeostasis and the biogenesis of the organelles themselves. The mitochondrion genome codes for a limited set of its own proteins and is dependent on nuclear gene products for the large majority of its constituent proteins and enzymes. The unicellular eukaryote Saccharomyces cerevisiae has a pivotal position in the study of mitochondrial function due to the ease with which its mitochondrial and nuclear genomes can be manipulated (Tzagoloff and Dieckmann, 1990).

It has become clear that mitochondria are essential cellular organelles for most eukaryotes not only because they produce ATP by aerobic catabolism. Research on S. cerevisiae has been instrumental in demonstrating that even cells without mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) have an organelle that performs essential functions (Schatz, 1995) and there is growing evidence that mitochondria have a central position in regulating the response to stress and programmed cell death (apoptosis) in eukaryotic cells (Susin et al., 1998). These new insights place mitochondria and their metabolic and biosynthetic activities at the focus of renewed interest.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae was the first eukaryote to have its genome completely sequenced (Goffeau, 1996) thus allowing the overall evaluation of the genes involved in mitochondrial functions in this organism. Due to the importance of mitochondrial dysfunction in genetic diseases of humans, the molecular analysis of mitochondrial functions in complex eukaryotes is most advanced in Homo sapiens (Wallace, 1999) and about 260 gene products have been linked to mitochondrial functions in humans (MITOP database, www.mips.biochem.mpg.dc/proj/medgen/ mitop). A different approach by Rötig et al. (2000) has identified in humans, 229 potential orthologues of S. cerevisiae nuclear mitochondrial genes, 102 of which were expressed sequence tag (EST) matches. Arabidopsis thaliana was the first plant to have its genome completely sequenced (Anon, 2000) providing a rich source of genetic material for comparative studies.

In this paper we present the results of a search of the Sugarcane EST (SUCEST) database for candidate orthologues of nuclear encoded mitochondrial genes. The (SUCEST) project is part of the Organization for Nucleotide Sequencing and Analysis (ONSA) network created and supported by the São Paulo State Research Foundation (Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP)).

Human and plant (Arabidopsis) annotated gene sequences were also used to expand our search for mitochondria related genes in sugarcane because S. cerevisiae lacks a number of important mitochondrial proteins (e.g. those present in the proton-translocating NADH-dehydrogenase-ubiquinone) and activities that are present in more complex eukaryotes.

Our research extracted from the SUCEST database a set of 367 clusters representing potential orthologues of nuclear sugarcane genes coding for gene products linked to mitochondrial function.



Using the search tools available for data mining at the SUCEST site ( we launched an EST-based strategy for gene discovery centered on mitochondrial functions.

A basic local alignment search tool TBLASTN search (protein sequence against 6-frame nucleotide translated database sequences) was carried out against 81,223 consensi from the fragment assembly program (phrap, Altschul et al., 1997) clustering of 260,781 ESTs (reference: Telles and da Silva, 2001) contained in the SUCEST database which were sequenced mostly from the 5’ end and derived from 37 cDNA libraries constructed from distinct sugarcane tissues grown under different conditions (Vettore et al., 2001). The EST reads were generated by a consortium of laboratories and deposited and managed at the bioinformatics laboratory at the university of Campinas (Telles et al., 2001). Our search included all mitochondrially located gene products using the information available in the S. cerevisiae Proteome,Inc. database (Costanzo et al., 2001;

Some transcription factors linked to the expression of genes related to mitochondria were also searched, although their site of action is the nucleus. Matches/Hits with an E-value of £ 10-10 against any protein were recorded, the annotation usually referring to well-characterized mitochondrial sequences from S. cerevisiae or the corresponding sequences from Arabidopsis thaliana or Homo sapiens. The Arabidopsis thaliana protein sequences were retrieved using the relevant categories listed at the Functional Catalogue available at the MIPS site (PEDANT database - while the Homo sapiens sequences were retrieved from the MITOP database (Scharfe et al., 2000; medgen/mitop) which lists the annotated human genes linked to mitochondrial functions.



Table I shows the origins of the 869 gene products derived from the reference organisms and known organellar locations used in the search along with the number of SUCEST matches with E-value £ 10-10 and the number of full-length clones recovered. We selected 459 S. cerevisiae gene products assigned to mitochondria, including some important transcription factors and cytoplasmic proteins known to be relevant to the function of the organelles, of which 272 showed significant similarity (E-value £ 10-10) to SUCEST clusters with 104 of these clusters probably representing full-length cDNA clones.



In calculating the full-length clones the criteria were that there should be no more than 30 amino acids out of alignment at the N-terminal end of the driver-sequence and an excess of nucleotides at the 5’ end of the SUCEST cluster to accommodate the divergent N-terminal sequence. The 149 Arabidopsis thaliana gene products used in the search resulted in 146 matches with E-value £ 10-10 and 55 apparently full-length cDNA clones while the 261 human sequences resulted in 179 SUCEST matches (E-value £ 10-10) and 77 apparently full-length cDNA clones.

The data shown in Table I was sorted and compared to generate a non-redundant set (Table II) of 367 unique clusters out of the 597 SUCEST matches. Table II shows the number of SUCEST clusters with similarity to single proteins or two or more proteins from the different organisms used for the search. Seventy clusters were similar to proteins from two organisms and 19 clusters were similar to sequences from all three organisms. The complete list of clusters is extensive and is presented in two supplementary tables (Table I-S and Table II-S: available at the SUCEST site ( which contain the 367 SUCEST clusters identified and the single or multiple matches to the different proteins used in the search. These tables list the sugarcane cluster, the reference organism(s) protein or gene name, protein size and function, score and E-value of the match. Clusters are labeled with the category number from Table III and probable full-length clusters are indicated by an asterisk. In Table I-S we list 130 clusters that have matches with two or more proteins used in the search from the same or different organisms. Table II-S lists 237 clusters with hits to single proteins from S. cerevisiae, H. Sapiens and A. thaliana.




In order to have an overview of the cellular roles and functions covered by this set of putative mitochondria-related genes expressed in sugarcane we grouped the annotated SUCEST sequences in a more convenient way for analysis (Table III) by classifying them in functional categories based on cellular processes or enzyme complexes. It can be seen that we were able to obtain putative orthologues for all functional categories of relevance to mitochondrial functions.



As mentioned in the introduction, mitochondrial functions go beyond energy metabolism and the generation of ATP by oxidative phosphorylation. The biogenesis of this cellular organelle is dependent upon the cooperation of two genomes: the mitochondrial genome encoding a relatively small number of gene products and the nuclear genome coding, in S. cerevisiae, for over 400 proteins that are needed for the function of this organelle (Tzagoloff and Dieckmann, 1990). Genome-wide surveys have suggested that in plants and vertebrates 10% of all proteins coded could be targeted to the mitochondria (Emanuelsson, 2000). In Table III we have grouped genes linked to amino acid metabolism, the Krebs cycle and other functions (not included in any specific category) under the heading ‘metabolism’, which contains 76 SUCEST clusters and among them, 27 putative full-length clones. Another category with many representatives is the mitochondrial carrier family of proteins (MCF) and other membrane transporters. Here we found, for example, candidates for transporters of citrate, phosphate, carnitine, ornithine and ATP/ADP.

Solute transport systems are essential for communication between cells and the environment and in organelle homeostasis. This large protein family is eukaryotic-specific, and supposedly arose after the appearance of mitochondria in the eukaryotic lineage, although its members are exclusively localized in the mitochondria (El Moualij et al., 1997). Plant mitochondrial carriers are attracting interest (Laloi, 1999) and our search found many members of this family (Table III). The uncoupling proteins found in plants and animals are a subfamily of mitochondrial carriers (Ricquier and Bouillaud, 2000) with a proposed role in cell defense. One of the endogenous damage-inducing mechanisms that have been confirmed by a variety of different approaches are the cellular and organellar effects of reactive oxygen radicals generated as byproducts of respiration. The study of energy-dissipating systems like the uncoupling proteins in plants and animals and the presence of alternative oxidases in plants indicate that cells also use these systems along with superoxide dismutase and peroxidases to reduce the damage caused by reactive oxygen species (Kowaltowski et al., 1999). Our data indicates the presence of an alternative oxidase and uncoupling protein in sugarcane.

A small but growing number of essential S. cerevisiae gene products have been located in mitochondria, going against the expectation that the only result of inactivating a mitochondrion-related gene (either nuclear or mitochondrial) would be the inability to metabolize non-fermentable carbon sources. This small set of genes code for proteins involved in the mitochondrial machinery of protein import (Neupert, 1997). Our group (Manzella et al., 1998; Barros and Nobrega, 1999) have detected two new mitochondrial proteins (Arh1p and Yah1p) in S. cerevisiae which are essential for growth under all the conditions tested, and which seem to be part of an electron transfer chain (ETC) distinct from the well-studied ATP-generating electron transport chain (ETC). Experiments with the YAH1 gene by Lange et al. (2000) have shown that this essential gene is one of a number of genes linked to Fe/S cluster formation, a complete outline of this new function having been given by Lill and Kispal (2000). We found 10 potential orthologues of genes linked to the assembly of Fe/S clusters in the SUCEST database. These prosthetic groups are regarded as important structural elements for many proteins and are redox centers for mitochondrial (Figure 1) and cytoplasmic enzymes (Beinert et al., 1997). In S. cerevisiae, the export of assembled Fe/S centers is mediated by the ATP-binding cassette transporter Atm1p (Kispal et al., 1999) and sugarcane has a potential homologue to this protein. Other key components of the pathway seem to exist in sugarcane e.g. ISA1, NFS1, NFU1 and YAH1. This mitochondrial function has been inherited from the bacterial endosymbiont from which mitochondria originated, as suggested by similarities between the corresponding bacterial and eukaryotic proteins. Interestingly, mammalian homologues of the components of the electron transfer chain (ARH1 and YAH1) are well known for donating electrons to a mitochondrial cytochrome P450 in steroidogenic tissues, the first and fundamental step in the synthesis of all steroid hormones. Analogous reactions are to be expected in plant mitochondria and it is interesting to note that the SUCEST carries eight P450 cytochrome-like genes.

The power of molecular genetics has produced important new developments in understanding the molecular machinery behind the inheritance, shape and distribution of the mitochondrial network (Yaffe, 1999), aspects of mitochondrial physiology which are essential for normal cell proliferation. The mitochondrial network has important connections with the cytoskeleton (Figure 1) and disruption of some mitochondrion-related genes in S. cerevisiae results in aggregation or defective segregation as well as instability of the mitochondrial genome Our search found five genes in this class (mitochondrial dynamics, Table III).

The machinery for protein import in mitochondria has been very intensively studied in S. cerevisiae (Neupert, 1997) and is being studied in plants as well (Glaser et al., 1998). Among this class one finds many essential genes in S. cerevisiae and our search detected ten putative transporters: seven belong to the translocase of the inner membrane (TIM complex) and three to the translocase of the outer membrane (TOM complex). The two supra-molecular assemblies cooperate to import (Figure 1) nuclear encoded proteins synthesized in the cytoplasm into the mitochondrion.

The inner membrane electron translocating complexes and ATP synthase are central to the ability of mitochondria to generate abundant energy by complete oxidation of substrates and because of this the assembly of these supra-molecular complexes (Saraste, 1999) has been much studied. The active purified respiratory enzyme complexes have, besides the catalytic subunits like cytochromes and Fe/S center-bearing subunits (Figure 1), accessory proteins that are needed for the activity of the enzyme. In addition it has been found (Tzagoloff and Dieckmann, 1990) that there are additional proteins that are needed for the proper functional assembly of these heteromeric membrane enzymes but these proteins are not part of the isolated biochemically active enzymes. These extra-enzyme activity factors are thought to be ‘assembly facilitators’ or specialized chaperones but the molecular mechanism of their action is usually unknown, although their inactivation generates clear respiratory deficient phenotypes (Nobrega et al., 1992; Souza et al., 2000). This class is mostly dispersed among NADH-cytochrome c reductase, cytochrome oxidase and general respiratory ability categories (Table III).

Our search found 20 candidate clusters in the combined NADH – cytochrome c oxidoreductase activity (complex I and complex III). Complex I, well studied in mammals has 43 subunits and is the largest of all the complexes, and the same complex in plants is also very large and similar to the mammalian enzyme (Rasmusson et al., 1998). Complex III receives electrons from ubiquinone and is reduced by either complex I or complex II. Complex III has been very well studied with its tri-dimensional structure having been described by Xia et al. (1997). This complex has cytochrome b, the Rieske Fe/S protein and cytochrome c1 as active components. Eight additional subunits surround the catalytic subunits and the so-called ‘core proteins’ contact the matrix space and are, in plants, identical to subunits of the mitochondrial processing peptidases that catalyze the specific cleavage of pre-sequence peptides from a large number of imported proteins (Glaser and Dessi, 1999).

Succinate:ubiquinone reductase or complex II is also a component of the Krebs cycle and is linked to the inner membrane by a b-type cytochrome. In addition it has flavin-adenine dinucleotide and several Fe/S centers and does not translocate protons across the membrane (Hägerhäll, 1997). We found three putative clusters in sugarcane (Table III).

Cytocrome c oxidase, the terminal enzyme of the respiratory chain, has also been extensively investigated. The mammalian enzyme has been crystallized (Tsukihara, 1996) and consists of 10 nuclear-encoded subunits and three mitochondrial-DNA encoded proteins. We detected 8 putative orthologues of this enzyme in sugarcane, with three being structural subunits and the others representing heme a synthesis enzymes and assembly facilitators.

ATP synthase is a complex and fascinating molecular motor. The detailed structure of the bacterial enzyme has been studied by crystallography and its function as a thirteen subunit reversible molecular rotary motor has been confirmed by Wang and Oster (1998). We found eight putative components of this complex in sugarcane (Table III).

Another important area of development is the identification of mitochondrial defects linked to genetic and degenerative diseases, e.g. aging and cancer (Wallace, 1999), this having led to the identification of many human homologues of genes linked to the function of, for example, cytochrome oxidase (Wallace, 1999) and other complexes. The human genes were instrumental in finding the putative orthologues of 53 sugarcane genes. Among them we found eleven nuclear subunits of complex I or NADH dehydrogenase (ubiquinone) and nine proteins related to complex III or ubiquinonol:cytochrome c reductase (category 8, Table III). In plants antisense suppression of complex I activity through repression of the 55 kDa subunit results in healthy plants. However the reduced respiratory ability is insufficient for normal pollen development (Rasmusson et al., 1998) pointing to the feasibility of complex I control of male fertility.

In category 11 (general respiratory ability) we have genes that are needed for respiratory competence but so far have not been linked to a specific complex. Other categories in Table III are lipid metabolism with 32 clusters and protein synthesis with 45 clusters. Protein synthesis components are synthesized at high levels and as a consequence are usually well represented in the cDNA libraries. Ribosomal proteins are an abundant class followed by the amino acid activating enzymes. A number of clusters are putative orthologues of genes linked to cell defense and programmed cell death (category 18, Table III). We left 48 clusters with activities listed as unclassified.

Our survey was based on 260,781 individual cDNA clones from 37 libraries. Rötig et al. (2000) used 340 S. cerevisiae mitochondrial proteins to scan the human genome for genes and ESTs and found 229 matches (E-value £ 10-5), of which 102 were EST clusters. The human genome database at the time had more than 2 million EST sequences and the total number of unique exons identified was over 600,000. Consequently our results, based on a smaller database, can be considered particularly successful. Our set of 367 clusters contains an estimated 145 full-length clones that are candidates for complete sequencing and homologous or heterologous functional studies (Hamel et al., 1997). The E-value £ 10-10 threshold we adopted was chosen to maximize the likelihood that matches were significant and we also collected information on matches up to E-value £ 10-5 and found that the increase in the number of additional clusters found did not warrant a change in the threshold value. For example, with the 459 S. cerevisiae proteins used we obtained just 28 hits with E-values between 10-5 and 10-10.

We are aware of the importance of comparing the sequences found with known counterparts from other organisms, and so far we have analyzed (results not shown) for five full-length cDNAs (the sugarcane putative orthologues of BIO2, COX11, CYB2, YAH1 and ODC2) and have produced high quality complete sequences. The alignments were done with two or three other proteins and confirm the validity of an E-value based approach to collect a representative set of mitochondria-related nuclear genes. We hope to expand this more detailed analysis for a larger set of proteins and to use the alignments for construction of phylogenies able to better identify gene families and evolutionary relationships. We also repeated our analysis (using the 149 inner membrane S. cerevisiae driver-sequences and the 261 sequences from Homo sapiens) by doing a TBLASTN search against the CAP3 cluster consensi available at the SUCEST site. Using this approach, we recovered from the S. cerevisiae set 89 matches as opposed to 86 using phrap, while from the human set we recovered 181 matches compared with 179 phrap matches. So, for our purposes, it appears that the two clustering methods (phrap or CAP3) yielded almost identical results, although there was an important change in the number of apparent full-length clones. The CAP3 assembly reduced the number of putative full-length clones: for the S. cerevisiae set CAP3 assembly produced 38 putative full-length clones as against 41 for phrap assembly, while for the human set CAP3 assembly produced 52 putative full-length clones compared to 77 with phrap assembly. The survey reported in this paper is, to our knowledge, the first genomic-wide EST study of mitochondria-related plant genes and will be a starting point for future and more focused studies on the molecular biology of mitochondrial physiology.




A mitocôndria funciona como uma usina geradora metabólica por meio da fosforilação oxidativa e tem sido alvo de um renovado interesse devido aos progressos no entendimento de sua biogênese e na descrição de novos papéis ligados à senescência, morte celular e montagem dos centros Fe/S. Uma análise global dos genes de planta ligados à esta organela é agora possível. A base de dados do projeto SUCEST foi examinada para detecção de ESTs com similaridade a genes nucleares relacionados às funções mitocondriais usando-se proteínas de Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Homo sapiens e Arabidopsis thaliana. Foram utilizadas 869 seqüências de proteínas para varrer o banco de ESTs do projeto SUCEST por meio do programa de busca de similaridade TBLASTN, sendo examinados 81.223 agrupamentos. Encontramos 367 agrupamentos com E-value £ 10-10 que representam os prováveis ortólogos em cana-de-açúcar dos genes correspondentes humanos, de levedura e de Arabidopsis. Encontramos produtos gênicos relacionados a todas as categorias funcionais ligados à atividade mitocondrial de maneira que este estudo serve de ponto de partida para a identificação dos genes de cana-de-açúcar envolvidos na biogênese e função da organela e para o estudo da estrutura e fisiologia destes genes.




We thank the Brazilian agencies FAPESP (99/02859-0; 99/02844-2) and CNPq (301070/80) for support. The assistance of Edilson Gomes de Faria was invaluable. We also thank Jefferson Viude, Priscila M.S. Correa and Julio C. Moreira for technical help. Support was also provided at times by Alexandre R. Lamm, Raquel F. Guedes, Tatiana M. Pereira and Elaine Crespim. JHMT is recipient of a FAPESP fellowship.



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