The mitochondrial permeability transition (PT) pore, also called the mitochondrial megachannel, is a multiprotein complex formed at the contact site between the mitochondrial inner and outer membranes, exactly the same location at which Bax, Bcl-2 and Bcl-XL are particularly abundant. The PT pore participates in the regulation of matrix Ca2+, pH, transmembrane potential and volume, and functions as a Ca2+-, voltage-, pH- and redox-gated channel with several levels of conductance and little, if any, ion selectivity. We have obtained three independent lines of evidence implicating the mitochondrial PT pore in apoptosis. First, in intact cells, apoptosis is accompanied by an early dissipation of the mitochondrial transmembrane potential, ΔΨm. In several models of apoptosis, specific agents inhibiting the mitochondrial PT pore abolish this dissipation of the ΔΨm and simultaneously prevent activation of downstream caspases and endonucleases, indicating that PT pore opening can be a critical event of the apoptotic process. Secondly, mitochondria are rate-limiting for caspase and nuclease activation in several cell-free systems of apoptosis. Isolated mitochondria release apoptogenic factors capable of activating pro-caspases or endonucleases upon opening of the mitochondrial megachannel in vitro. Thirdly, opening of the purified PT pore complex reconstituted into liposomes is inhibited by recombinant Bcl-2 or Bcl-XL, two apoptosis-inhibitory proteins that also prevent PT pore opening in cells and isolated mitochondria. Altogether, our results suggest that PT pore opening is sufficient and (mostly) necessary for triggering apoptosis. The implications of these findings are examined in the light of pharmacological interventions in apoptosis.

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