Nuclear-encoded proteins destined for mitochondria must cross the outer or both outer and inner membranes to reach their final sub-mitochondrial locations. While the inner membrane can translocate preproteins by itself, it is not known whether the outer membrane also contains an endogenous protein translocation activity which can function independently of the inner membrane. To selectively study the protein transport into and across the outer membrane of Neurospora crassa mitochondria, outer membrane vesicles were isolated which were sealed, in a right-side-out orientation, and virtually free of inner membranes. The vesicles were functional in the insertion and assembly of various outer membrane proteins such as porin, MOM19, and MOM22. Like with intact mitochondria, import into isolated outer membranes was dependent on protease-sensitive surface receptors and led to correct folding and membrane integration. The vesicles were also capable of importing a peripheral component of the inner membrane, cytochrome c heme lyase (CCHL), in a receptor-dependent fashion. Thus, the protein translocation machinery of the outer mitochondrial membrane can function as an independent entity which recognizes, inserts, and translocates mitochondrial preproteins of the outer membrane and the intermembrane space. In contrast, proteins which have to be translocated into or across the inner membrane were only specifically bound to the vesicles, but not imported. This suggests that transport of such proteins involves the participation of components of the intermembrane space and/or the inner membrane, and that in these cases the outer membrane translocation machinery has to act in concert with that of the inner membrane.

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