Many organisms in nature have evolved mechanisms to tolerate severe hypoxia or ischemia, including the hibernation-capable Arctic ground squirrel (AGS). Although hypoxic or ischemia tolerance in AGS involves physiological adaptations, little is known about the critical cellular mechanisms underlying intrinsic AGS cell resilience to metabolic stress. Through cell survival-based cDNA expression screens in neural progenitor cells, we identify a genetic variant of AGS Atp5g1 that confers cell resilience to metabolic stress. Atp5g1 encodes a subunit of the mitochondrial ATP synthase. Ectopic expression in mouse cells and CRISPR/Cas9 base editing of endogenous AGS loci revealed causal roles of one AGS-specific amino acid substitution in mediating cytoprotection by AGS ATP5G1. AGS ATP5G1 promotes metabolic stress resilience by modulating mitochondrial morphological change and metabolic functions. Our results identify a naturally occurring variant of ATP5G1 from a mammalian hibernator that critically contributes to intrinsic cytoprotection against metabolic stress.
When animals hibernate, they lower their body temperature and metabolism to conserve the energy they need to withstand cold harsh winters. One such animal is the Arctic ground squirrel, an extreme hibernator that can drop its body temperatures to below 0°C. This hibernation ability means the cells of Arctic ground squirrels can survive severe shortages of blood and oxygen. But, it is unclear how their cells are able to endure this metabolic stress. To answer this question, Singhal, Bai et al. studied the cells of Arctic ground squirrels for unique features that might make them more durable to stress. Examining the genetic code of these resilient cells revealed that Arctic ground squirrels may have a variant form of a protein called ATP5G1. This protein is found in a cellular compartment called the mitochondria, which is responsible for supplying energy to the rest of the cell and therefore plays an important role in metabolic processes. Singhal, Bai et al. found that when this variant form of ATP5G1 was introduced into the cells of mice, their mitochondria was better at coping with stress conditions, such as low oxygen, low temperature and poisoning. Using a gene editing tool to selectively substitute some of the building blocks, also known as amino acids, that make up the ATP5G1 protein revealed that improvements to the mitochondria were caused by switching specific amino acids. However, swapping these amino acids, which presumably affects the role of ATP5G1, did not completely remove the cells’ resilience to stress. This suggests that variants of other genes and proteins may also be involved in providing protection. These findings provide the first evidence of a protein variant that is responsible for protecting cells during the metabolic stress conditions caused by hibernation. The approach taken by Singhal, Bai et al. could be used to identify and study other proteins that increase resilience to metabolic stress. These findings could help develop new treatments for diseases caused by a limited blood supply to human organs, such as a stroke or heart attack.