The oxygen dependence of cholesterol side chain cleavage to form pregnenolone was measured, using both purified phospholipid vesicle-reconstituted cytochrome P-450scc and rat adrenal mitochondria. At saturating cholesterol and nonlimiting electron supply (via NADPH-adrenodoxin reductase and adrenodoxin) the Km(O2) is low (4 microM). Limitations in the availability of both cholesterol and reductant caused elevations in the observed Km(O2). Pregnenolone synthesis was measured in mitochondria from variously pretreated rats, using a phospholipid-cholesterol dispersion as the source of exogenous substrate. In mitochondria obtained from ether-stressed rats (which elevates adrenocorticotropic hormone) two phases of malate-supported pregnenolone production are seen, a rapid (first 2 min) highly oxygen-dependent phase (Km = 150 microM) and a slow (2-10 min) relatively oxygen-independent phase (Km less than 10 microM). Comparison of side chain cleavage rates with mitochondrial 11 beta-hydroxylation rates at various oxygen concentrations suggests that the rapid phase is limited by the availability of reducing equivalents. In cycloheximide-pretreated ether-stressed rats, only a linear slow rate of pregnenolone production was seen (about 25% of the rate of the slow phase in the ether-stressed group), while in mitoplasts from both groups only a linear rapid rate was seen. Data are consistent with the proposal (Privalle, C. T., Crivello, J. F., and Jefcoate, C. R. (1983) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 80, 702-706) that the adrenocorticotropic hormone-regulated cycloheximide-inhibitable rate of cholesterol side chain cleavage is limited by the rate of cholesterol transfer from outer to inner mitochondrial membranes.
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