Are mitochondria the main contributor of reactive oxygen species in cells? [COMMENTARY]

Yufeng Zhang and Hoi Shan Wong

Physiologists often assume that mitochondria are the main producers of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in cells. Consequently, in biomedicine, mitochondria are considered as important targets for therapeutic treatments, and in evolutionary biology, they are considered as mediators of life-history tradeoffs. Surprisingly, data supporting such an assumption are lacking, at least partially due to the technical difficulties in accurately measuring the level of ROS produced by different subcellular compartments in intact cells. In this Commentary, we first review three potential reasons underlying the misassumption of mitochondrial dominance in the production of cellular ROS. We then introduce some other major sites/enzymes responsible for cellular ROS production. With the use of a recently developed cell-based assay, we further discuss the contribution of mitochondria to the total rate of ROS release in cell lines and primary cells of different species. In these cells, the contribution of mitochondria varies between cell types but mitochondria are never the main source of cellular ROS. This indicates that although mitochondria are one of the significant sources of cellular ROS, they are not necessarily the main contributor under normal conditions. Intriguingly, similar findings were also observed in cells under a variety of stressors, life-history strategies and pathological stages, in which the rates of cellular ROS production were significantly enhanced. Finally, we make recommendations for designing future studies. We hope this paper will encourage investigators to carefully consider non-mitochondrial sources of cellular ROS in their study systems or models.

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