We investigated two unrelated children with an isolated defect of mitochondrial complex III activity. The clinical picture was characterized by a progressive encephalopathy featuring early-onset developmental delay, spasticity, seizures, lactic acidosis, brain atrophy and MRI signal changes in the basal ganglia. Both children were compound heterozygotes for novel mutations in the human bc1 synthesis like (BCS1L) gene, which encodes an AAA mitochondrial protein putatively involved in both iron homeostasis and complex III assembly. The pathogenic role of the mutations was confirmed by complementation assays, using a ΔBcs1 strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. By investigating complex III assembly and the structural features of the BCS1L gene product in skeletal muscle, cultured fibroblasts and lymphoblastoid cell lines from our patients, we have demonstrated, for the first time in a mammalian system, that a major function of BCS1L is to promote the maturation of complex III and, more specifically, the incorporation of the Rieske iron-sulfur protein into the nascent complex. Defective BCS1L leads to the formation of a catalytically inactive, structurally unstable complex III. We have also shown that BCS1L is contained within a high-molecular-weight supramolecular complex which is clearly distinct from complex III intermediates.
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