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Respiratory complex I is a major cellular energy transducer located in the inner mitochondrial membrane. Its inhibition by rotenone, a natural isoflavonoid, has been used for centuries by indigenous peoples to aid in fishing and, more recently, as a broad-spectrum pesticide or even a possible anticancer therapeutic. Unraveling the molecular mechanism of rotenone action will help to design tuned derivatives and to understand the still mysterious catalytic mechanism of complex I. Although composed of five fused rings, rotenone is a flexible molecule and populates two conformers, bent and straight. Here, a rotenone derivative locked in the straight form was synthesized and found to inhibit complex I with 600-fold less potency than natural rotenone. Large-scale molecular dynamics and free energy simulations of the pathway for ligand binding to complex I show that rotenone is more stable in the bent conformer, either free in the membrane or bound to the redox active site in the substrate-binding Q-channel. However, the straight conformer is necessary for passage from the membrane through the narrow entrance of the channel. The less potent inhibition of the synthesized derivative is therefore due to its lack of internal flexibility, and interconversion between bent and straight forms is required to enable efficient kinetics and high stability for rotenone binding. The ligand also induces reconfiguration of protein loops and side-chains inside the Q-channel similar to structural changes that occur in the open to closed conformational transition of complex I. Detailed understanding of ligand flexibility and interactions that determine rotenone binding may now be exploited to tune the properties of synthetic derivatives for specific applications.

Original publication




Journal article


Scientific Reports

Publication Date