Ca2+ is a key regulator not only of multiple cytosolic enzymes, but also of a variety of metabolic pathways occurring within the lumen of intracellular organelles. Until recently, no technique to selectively monitor the Ca2+ concentration within defined cellular compartments was available. We have recently proposed the use of molecularly engineered Ca(2+)-sensitive photoproteins to obtain such a result and demonstrated the application of this methodology to the study of mitochondrial and nuclear Ca2+ dynamics. We here describe in more detail the use of chimeric recombinant aequorin targeted to the mitochondria. The technique can be applied with equivalent results to different cell models, transiently or permanently transfected. In all the cell types we analyzed, mitochondrial Ca2+ concentration ([Ca2+]m) increases rapidly and transiently upon stimulation with agonists coupled to InsP3 generation. We confirm that the high speed of mitochondrial Ca2+ accumulation with this type of stimuli depends on the generation of local gradients of Ca2+ in the cytosol, close to the channels sensitive to InsP3. In fact, only activation of these channels, but not the simple release from internal stores, as that elicited by blocking the intracellular Ca2+ ATPases, results in a fast mitochondrial Ca2+ accumulation. We also provide evidence in favor of a microheterogeneity among mitochondria of the same cells, about 30% of them apparently sensing the microdomains of high cytosolic Ca2+ concentration ([Ca2+]c). The changes in [Ca2+]m appear sufficiently large to induce a rapid activation of mitochondrial dehydrogenases, which can be followed by monitoring the level of NAD(P)H fluorescence. A general scheme can thus be envisaged by which the triggering of a plasma membrane receptor coupled to InsP3 generation raises the Ca2+ concentration both in the cytoplasm (thereby triggering energy-consuming processes, such as cell proliferation, motility, secretion, etc.) and in the mitochondria, where it activates the metabolic activity according to the increased cell needs.

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