Protoporphyrinogen oxidase (PPOX; EC, the penultimate enzyme of haem biosynthesis, is a nucleus-encoded flavoprotein strongly associated with the outer surface of the inner mitochondrial membrane. It is attached to this membrane by an unknown mechanism that appears not to involve a membrane-spanning domain. The pathway for its import to mitochondria and insertion into the inner membrane has not been established. We have fused human PPOXs containing N-terminal deletions, C-terminal deletions or missense mutations to yellow fluorescent protein (YFP) and have used these constructs to investigate the mitochondrial import of PPOX in human cells. We show that all the information required for efficient import is contained within the first 250 amino acid residues of human PPOX and that targeting to mitochondria is prevented by fusion of YFP to the N-terminus. Deletion of between 151 and 175 residues from the N-terminus is required to abolish import, whereas shorter deletions impair its efficiency. Fully efficient targeting appears to require both a major targeting signal, the whole or part of which is contained between residues 151 and 175, and which may be involved in anchoring to the inner mitochondrial membrane, together with interaction between this region and a sequence(s) within the first 150 residues. These features suggest that the mechanism for import of human PPOX to mitochondria differs from those identified for the translocation of nucleus-encoded, membrane-spanning, inner membrane proteins. In addition, a missense mutation outside this region (Val335→Gly) prevented targeting to mitochondria and delayed the appearance of YFP fluorescence. This mutation appeared to prevent import by a direct effect on protein folding rather than by altering a sequence required for targeting. It may lead to sequestration of the PPOX–YFP construct in an unfolded conformation, followed by proteolytic degradation, possibly through enhanced binding to a cytosolic chaperone protein.

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