Although ceramide signaling pathways have been implicated in cell death, neither their role in hepatocellular death nor the cellular mechanisms mediating ceramide-induced cell death are known. The mitochondrial membrane permeability transition (MMPT) has been proposed as a common final pathway in cell death. Thus the aims of our study were to determine if ceramides cause hepatocellular death by inducing the MMPT. Ceramides induce hepatocellular death by necrosis and not apoptosis as confirmed by morphology and the absence of internucleosomal DNA cleavage. Ceramide-mediated hepatocyte necrosis was acyl chain-length, concentration, and time-dependent. Ceramide induced cell necrosis was associated with adenosine triphosphate (ATP) depletion and mitochondrial depolarization suggesting that ceramides caused mitochondrial dysfunction. In isolated mitochondria, ceramides induced the cyclosporine A-sensitive MMPT in an acyl chain-length and concentration dependent manner. Ceramide toxicity was specific as the less potent dihydro form did not induce cell necrosis, significant ATP depletion, mitochondrial depolarization nor the MMPT. In conclusion, ceramide induced cell death is acyl-chain length dependent and mediated by the MMPT. These data show for the first time that ceramide acts as a mediator of hepatocyte necrosis by causing mitochondrial failure.
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