Genetic Variants in Apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) are associated with large increases in CKD rates among African Americans. Experiments in cell and mouse models suggest that these risk-related polymorphisms are toxic gain-of-function variants that cause kidney dysfunction, following a recessive mode of inheritance. Recent data in trypanosomes and in human cells indicate that such variants may cause toxicity through their effects on mitochondria.
To examine the molecular mechanisms underlying APOL1 risk variant–induced mitochondrial dysfunction, we generated tetracycline-inducible HEK293 T-REx cells stably expressing the APOL1 nonrisk G0 variant or APOL1 risk variants. Using these cells, we mapped the molecular pathway from mitochondrial import of APOL1 protein to APOL1-induced cell death with small interfering RNA knockdowns, pharmacologic inhibitors, blue native PAGE, mass spectrometry, and assessment of mitochondrial permeability transition pore function.
We found that the APOL1 G0 and risk variant proteins shared the same import pathway into the mitochondrial matrix. Once inside, G0 remained monomeric, whereas risk variant proteins were prone to forming higher-order oligomers. Both nonrisk G0 and risk variant proteins bound components of the mitochondrial permeability transition pore, but only risk variant proteins activated pore opening. Blocking mitochondrial import of APOL1 risk variants largely eliminated oligomer formation and also rescued toxicity.
Our study illuminates important differences in the molecular behavior of APOL1 nonrisk and risk variants, and our observations suggest a mechanism that may explain the very different functional effects of these variants, despite the lack of consistently observed differences in trafficking patterns, intracellular localization, or binding partners. Variant-dependent differences in oligomerization pattern may underlie APOL1’s recessive, gain-of-function biology.