All small Tim proteins of the mitochondrial intermembrane space contain two conserved CX3C motifs, which form two intramolecular disulfide bonds essential for function, but only the cysteine-reduced, but not oxidized, proteins can be imported into mitochondria. We have shown that Tim10 can be oxidized by glutathione under cytosolic concentrations. However, it was unknown whether oxidative folding of other small Tims can occur under similar conditions and whether oxidative folding competes kinetically with mitochondrial import. In the present study, the effect of glutathione on the cysteine-redox state of Tim9 was investigated, and the standard redox potential of Tim9 was determined to be approx. −0.31 V at pH 7.4 and 25 °C with both the wild-type and Tim9F43W mutant proteins, using reverse-phase HPLC and fluorescence approaches. The results show that reduced Tim9 can be oxidized by glutathione under cytosolic concentrations. Next, we studied the rate of mitochondrial import and oxidative folding of Tim9 under identical conditions. The rate of import was approx. 3-fold slower than that of oxidative folding of Tim9, resulting in approx. 20% of the precursor protein being imported into an excess amount of mitochondria. A similar correlation between import and oxidative folding was obtained for Tim10. Therefore we conclude that oxidative folding and mitochondrial import are kinetically competitive processes. The efficiency of mitochondrial import of the small Tim proteins is controlled, at least partially in vitro, by the rate of oxidative folding, suggesting that a cofactor is required to stabilize the cysteine residues of the precursors from oxidation in vivo.

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