During the last decade, the possibility that ‘mild’ uncoupling could be protective against oxidative damage by diminishing ROS (reactive oxygen species) production has attracted much interest. In the present paper, we briefly examine the evidence for this possibility. It is only ROS production from succinate under reverse electron-flow conditions that is sensitive to membrane potential fluctuations, and so only this type of ROS production could be affected; however, the conditions under which succinate-supported ROS production is observed include succinate concentrations that are supraphysiological. Any decrease in membrane potential, even ‘mild uncoupling’, must necessarily lead to large increases in respiration, i.e. it must be markedly thermogenic. Mitochondria within cells are normally ATP-producing and thus already have a diminished membrane potential, and treatment of cells, organs or animals with small amounts of artificial uncoupler does not seem to have beneficial effects that are explainable via reduced ROS production. Although it has been suggested that members of the uncoupling protein family (UCP1, UCP2 and UCP3) may mediate a mild uncoupling, present evidence does not unequivocally support such an effect, e.g. the absence of the truly uncoupling protein UCP1 is not associated with increased oxidative damage. Thus present evidence does not support mild uncoupling as a physiologically relevant alleviator of oxidative damage.

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