1. Introduction

Autophagy is a cellular degradation system that degrades and reuses intracellular proteins and organelles [

1

,

2

,

3

]. This system plays a role in the quality control of cellular components, and its dysfunction has been reported to be associated with the onset of a number of diseases [

4

,

5

]. Therefore, artificially inducing autophagy and enhancing cell metabolism would be expected to be an innovative therapeutic strategy for the treatment of various diseases that are difficult to treat.

We previously reported on the design of methylated β-cyclodextrins (Me-β-CDs)-threaded acid-labile polyrotaxane (Me-PRX) that induces autophagy [

6

]. The Me-β-CDs released from the Me-PRX would be predicted to interact with organelle membranes and induce autophagy through the leakage of cholesterol from the membrane. The naked Me-PRX was observed to co-localize with the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) and lysosomes, and autophagy was induced by ER stress [

6

].

In addition, we successfully activated mitochondria-targeted autophagy by the delivery of Me-RRX to mitochondria [

7

]. A MITO-Porter, a mitochondria-targeted nanocarrier [

8

,

9

,

10

,

11

], was used for the delivery of cargoes to mitochondria. In this experiment, we packaged Me-PRX in the MITO-Porter to prepare an S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) that was modified with the S2 peptide (S2, Dmt-

d

-Arg-F-K-Dmt-

d

-Arg-F-K, Dmt = 2, 6-dimethyltyrosine), which has cellular uptake and mitochondrial targeting activity [

12

]. When the same amount of Me-PRX was internalized into cells that had been treated with the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) and naked Me-PRX, respectively, a large difference was observed in the level of induction of autophagy. The S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) induced autophagy much more strongly compared to the naked PRX. These findings indicate that a difference in the subcellular localization of an autophagy-inducing molecule such as Me-PRX affects the level of induction of autophagy.

The predicted intracellular fate of Me-PRX and the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) to induce autophagy is shown in

Figure 1

. To validate this hypothesis, we first evaluated the quantitative intracellular organelle localization of Me-PRX and the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) using confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM). Mitochondria, ER and lysosomes were selected as target organelles because they would be involved in autophagy induction. In addition, organelle injuries were evaluated by measuring mitochondrial membrane potentials and detecting the C/EBP homologous protein (CHOP), which is an ER stress-inducible protein that is involved in the regulation of programmed cell death [

13

]. Finally, cell viability was also evaluated using a WST-1 assay. The findings of this study indicate that the specific organelle in which the autophagy-inducing molecules are localized is an important determinant of the level of activation of the induced autophagy.

2. Materials and Methods

2.1. Materials

1,2-Dioleoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphatidyl ethanolamine (DOPE) was purchased from the NOF Corporation (Tokyo, Japan). Sphingomyelin (SM) was purchased from Avanti Polar Lipids (Alabaster, AL, USA). STR-S2 (stearylated-Dmt-

d

-Arg-FK-Dmt-

d

-Arg-FK-NH

2

, Dmt = 2,6-dimethyltyrosne) was obtained from the Toray Research Center (Tokyo, Japan). The synthesis of methylated β-cyclodextrin-threaded acid-labile PRX (Me-PRX) and BODIPY-labeled Me-PRX [

14

] are described in the

Supplementary Materials

. HeLa human cervix carcinoma cells were obtained from the RIKEN Cell Bank (Tsukuba, Japan). Dulbecco’s modified Eagle’s medium (low glucose) (DMEM) was obtained from Wako Pure Chemical Industries, Ltd. (Osaka, Japan). Fetal bovine serum (FBS) was obtained from Sigma–Aldrich (St. Louis, MO, USA). CellLight ER-RFP BacMam 2.0, LysoTracker Red DND-99 and MitoTracker Deep Red FM were obtained from Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA, USA). All other chemicals used were commercially available reagent-grade products.

2.2. Construction of the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX)

Chloroform (500 µL) containing 2.75 µmol lipids [DOPE/SM = 9:2 (molar ratio)] and 500 µL of diisopropyl ether were added to a glass tube. Additionally, 500 µL of 10 mM HEPES buffer (pH 7.4) containing Me-PRX (4 mM, final concentration of Me-β-CD) was added, followed by sonication for 15 s with a probe-type sonicator (SONIFIER Model 250D, BRANDSON, Kanagawa, Japan). After removing the organic solvent with a stream of N2, a liposome suspension was formed by sonication for 30 sec in a bath-type sonicator (AU-25C, Aiwa Company, Tokyo, Japan). Finally, the STR-S2 solutions (10 mol% of total lipids) were added to the liposome suspension to produce the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX). To investigate the intracellular trafficking of Me-PRX, an S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) containing fluorescently labelled Me-PRX (BODIPY-Me-PRX) was used.

2.3. Intracellular Observation of BODIPY-Me-PRX in Cells Stained with Mitochondria or Lysosomes Using CLSM

HeLa cells (4 × 10

4

cells/dish) were incubated on a 3.5 cm glass-base dish (Iwaki) for 48 h (5% CO

2

, 37 °C). First, the DMEM (FBS+) containing naked BODIPY-Me-PRX [green color] (1000 μM, final concentration of β-CD) or S2 MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) containing BODIPY-Me-PRX (40 μM, final concentration of Me-β-CD) was added to the cells after washing the cells in DMEM (FBS+), followed by incubation for 16 h (5% CO

2

, 37 °C). Next, the medium was replaced with fresh DMEM (FBS+) containing MitoTracker Deep Red [red color] (60 nM, final concentration) or LysoTracker Red DND-99 [red color] (1 μM, final concentration) and the cells were then incubated for 20 min (5% CO

2

, 37 °C). After washing the cells in Phenol red-free DMEM (FBS+), they were observed by CLSM (FV10i-LIV). The details of CLSM settings are described in the

Supplementary Materials

.

2.4. ER Staining and the Intracellular Observation of BODIPY-Me-PRX Using CLSM

HeLa cells (4 × 10

4

cells/dish) were incubated on a 3.5 cm glass-base dish for 24 h (5% CO

2

, 37 °C). After washing the cells in DMEM (FBS+), the DMEM (FBS+) containing CellLight ER-RFP BacMam 2.0 was added to the cells to stain the ER red, followed by incubation for 24 h (5% CO

2

, 37 °C). The DMEM (FBS+) containing naked BODIPY-Me-PRX [green color] (1000 μM, final concentration of Me-β-CD) or S2 MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) containing BODIPY-Me-PRX (40 μM, final concentration of Me-β-CD) was added to the cells after washing the cells in DMEM (FBS+), followed by incubation for 16 h (5% CO

2

, 37 °C). After washing the cells in Phenol red-free DMEM (FBS+), they were observed by CLSM (FV10i-LIV). The details of the CLSM setting are described in the

Supplementary Materials

.

2.5. Evaluation of the Occupancy Rates of Mitochondria, ER and Lysosome

The occupancy rates of mitochondria, ER and lysosome were calculated based on the CLSM images of stained images, as described below. The occupancy rates for Me-RPX for mitochondria, ER and lysosomes were evaluated using Image Pro-Plus 7.0 (Ropper Industries, Sarasota, FL, USA). Fluorescent and bright-field cell images were obtained after samples were stained with BODIPY labeled Me-PRX (green), followed by staining mitochondria, ER and lysosomes. These organelles are indicated in red color and were captured by means of CLSM. Each eight-bit TIFF image was analyzed to quantify the total area of each region of interest. The yellow pixel areas where carriers (green) were co-localized with stained organelle (red) are marked in each image. The yellow and red colored pixel areas of each cluster in the cell, s

i

(yellow) and s

i

(red), were separately summed for each image and are denoted as S′

z=j

(yellow) and S′

z=j

(red), respectively. The values of S′

z=j

(yellow) and S′

z=j

(red) in each image were further summed and are denoted as S (yellow) and S (red), respectively. S (yellow) and S (red) represent the total area of carriers that were co-localized with the organelle of interest and include all of the Me-RPX inside the cell and the organelle region in the total cell. The occupancy rates of mitochondria, ER and lysosome were calculated as follows

Organelle occupancy rate (%) = S (yellow)/S (red) × 100

The organelle occupancy that the carriers accumulated within the region of the whole organelle region in the cell are summarized in

Figure 2

C and

Figure S1

.

2.6. Evaluation of Mitochondrial Membrane Potential

Samples were incubated with HeLa cells (1 × 105 cells/well) seeded on 6-well plates in 1 mL of serum containing DMEM for 24 h under an atmosphere of 5% CO2/air at 37 °C. The cells were stained with Tetramethylrhodamine, methyl ester (TMRM) (final concentration, 1 μM) for 20 min and then washed with phosphate-buffered saline (PBS (-)), trypsinized, suspended in DMEM with serum, and precipitated by centrifugation (700× g, 4 °C, 3 min). After washing the cells with FACS buffer (0.5% bovine serum albumin in PBS (-)), the cells were resuspended in FACS buffer, and the fluorescence of TMRM was analyzed by flow cytometry (FACS Gallios; Beckman Coulter, Brea, CA, USA).

2.7. Detection of CHOP Expression by Western-Blotting

HeLa cells (5 × 10

4

cells/well) were incubated on a 12-well plate (Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., Waltham, MA, USA) for 24 h (5% CO

2

, 37 °C). After washing the cells with PBS (-), the DMEM (FBS+) containing samples was added to the cell suspension, followed by incubation for 16 h (5% CO

2

, 37 °C). After washing the cells with PBS (-), the cells were lysed with RIPA buffer containing protease and phosphatase inhibitors. The lysate was centrifuged (20,630×

g

, 10 min, 4 °C), and the supernatant was collected, followed by western blotting (see

Supplementary Information

for the details).

2.8. Evaluation of Cell Toxicities

Cell viability was measured using the WST-1 assay. The cells were cultured on a 24-well plate (Corning Inc., Corning, NY, USA) for 24 h under an atmosphere of 5% CO2/air at 37 °C. The sample was transfected into the cells in DMEM (FBS+) and incubated for 48 h. The WST-1 reagent was added to the cells immediately after irradiation and then incubated for 2 h. The change in reagent absorbance was measured at 450 nm with the reference at 630 nm using a microplate photometer (EnSpire® Multimode Plate Reader, Perkin Elmer; Waltham, MA, USA).

2.9. Observation of Cell Form Using Microscopy

HeLa cells (1 × 105 cells/well) were seeded on 6-well plates in one day before being assayed and incubated in DMEM that contained 10% FBS under an atmosphere of 5% CO2/air at 37 °C. The cells were washed with PBS (-) and then incubated with carriers containing Me-PRX or naked Me-PRX suspended in the medium for 24 h under an atmosphere of 5% CO2/air at 37 °C. The cells were observed by microscopy.

2.10. Statistical Analysis

Data are expressed as the mean ± S.D. for the indicated number of experiments. For multiple comparisons, one-way ANOVA followed by the Student Newman Keuls (SNK) test was performed. Levels of p < 0.05 were considered to be significant.

4. Discussion

In our previous study, we reported that autophagy is induced more efficiently by low concentrations of the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) than with Me-PRX alone [

7

]. Therefore, we hypothesized that the cellular uptake of Me-PRX via S2-MITO-Porter contributed to the change in the subcellular localization of Me-PRX. We observed the intracellular localization of Me-PRX by the S2-MITO-Porter, for each specific organelle (mitochondria, ER, and lysosomes) and compared it with the corresponding values for Me-PRX alone (

Figure 2

). As a result, while only negligible amounts of Me-PRX accumulated in mitochondria, the co-localization of Me-PRX and mitochondria was clearly observed when the S2-MITO-Porter was used, thus confirming that Me-PRX was delivered to mitochondria. In addition, when the S2-MITO-Porter was used, Me-PRX was observed to accumulate, not only in mitochondria and lysosomes but also, to some extent, in the ER.

In the case of Me-PRX alone, Me-PRX is localized in lysosomes, and Me-β-CD is released by degradation in an acidic environment and is then translocated to the ER [

6

]. In the case of the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX), on the other hand, there are two possible pathways after cellular uptake. The first possibility is that the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) escapes from the endosome, and Me-PRX is delivered to the mitochondria. The second pathway involves the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) undergoing degradation in the lysosomes, and the Me-β-CD resulting from the degradation is transferred to the ER. Based on the above considerations, we conclude that it is likely that when Me-PRX is introduced into the cell via the S2-MITO-Porter, the Me-PRX is transferred to both mitochondria and the ER.

Comparison of each organelle occupancy (mitochondria, ER, and lysosomes) between the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) and Me-PRX alone showed that the level of the S2-MITO-Porter in the ER was reduced, and lysosome occupancies were comparable to that for the Me-PRX alone (

Figure 2

C and

Figure S1

). As mentioned above, when Me-PRX is introduced into the cell using S2-MITO-Porter, the Me-PRX is accumulated in both the mitochondria and the ER, which results in a lower ER occupancy than when Me-PRX alone is used. Considering the method of escape from both endosomes or lysosomes, in the case of the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX), the S2 peptide modified on the lipid membrane of the S2-MITO-Porter confers membrane permeability [

15

,

16

,

17

], and thus, it is possible that is escapes from endosomes via the S2 peptide. On the other hand, in the case of Me-PRX alone, the Me-β-CD released in lysosomes interacts with cholesterol in the lysosomal membrane and accumulates in the ER. This difference in lysosomal occupancy suggests that the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) escapes from endosomes more efficiently than Me-PRX alone (

Figure 2

Cc).

When Me-PRX is delivered to mitochondria by the S2-MITO-Porter, Me-β-CD, which is generated by the degradation of Me-PRX in mitochondria, is assumed to pull out cholesterol from the mitochondrial membrane, causing mitochondrial membrane instability and a decrease in mitochondrial membrane potential. Based on previous reports, it was presumed that delivering Me-PRX to mitochondria would increase stress and that the first response to this stress would be the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) [

18

]. We then hypothesized that the decrease in mitochondrial membrane potential triggers autophagy induction. However, when the mitochondrial membrane potential was evaluated when the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) was used, the mitochondrial membrane potential was confirmed to be increased. There are two possible reasons why the mitochondrial membrane potential was increased by the mitochondrial delivery of Me-PRX: first, enhanced mitochondrial metabolism by autophagy might actually improve mitochondrial function; second, autophagy-enhanced mitochondrial metabolism might increase mitochondrial mass. In order to verify these two possibilities, a more detailed evaluation of mitochondrial function using S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) will be necessary. It should also be noted that there are reports that cholesterol depletion does not induce a reduction in mitochondrial membrane potential reduction [

19

]. Therefore, this issue needs to be investigated carefully.

The region of the ER that is in contact with mitochondria is called the mitochondria-associated membrane (MAM), where mitochondria and the ER are known to cooperate to regulate mitochondria, ER function and cellular function [

20

]. It has also been shown that autophagosome formation occurs in the MAM [

21

]. The close relationship between mitochondria and the ER via MAM suggests that reduced ER function might indirectly affect mitochondrial function. The reason for the marked decrease in mitochondrial membrane potential in the case of Me-PRX alone might be that Me-PRX induces ER stress, which indirectly injures mitochondria via MAM [

22

]. Therefore, Me-PRX alone might also indirectly injure mitochondria through a similar mechanism, resulting in a significant decrease in mitochondrial membrane potential.

To investigate the effect of the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) on ER function, we evaluated the expression of CHOP, a transcription factor whose expression is induced by ER stress. No change in CHOP expression was found when the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX) was used (

Figure 4

). Hence, it was shown that when Me-PRX is introduced into cells using the S2-MITO-Porter, ER stress is not induced, and the ER is not injured, but Me-PRX is delivered to the ER. These results indicate that the mitochondrial delivery of Me-PRX is a major contributor to the induction of autophagy by the S2-MITO-Porter (Me-PRX). In addition, the activation of autophagy enhances mitochondrial metabolism in the cells, which might result in improved mitochondrial function or an increased mitochondrial mass.

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