Abstract Background Lipoylation of 2-ketoacid dehydrogenases is essential for mitochondrial function in eukaryotes. While the basic principles of the lipoylation processes have been worked out, we still lack a thorough understanding of the details of this important post-translational modification pathway. Here we used yeast as a model organism to characterize substrate usage by the highly conserved eukaryotic octanoyl/lipoyl transferases in vivo and queried how amenable the lipoylation system is to supplementation with exogenous substrate. Results We show that the requirement for mitochondrial fatty acid synthesis to provide substrates for lipoylation of the 2-ketoacid dehydrogenases can be bypassed by supplying the cells with free lipoic acid (LA) or octanoic acid (C8) and a mitochondrially targeted fatty acyl/lipoyl activating enzyme. We also provide evidence that the S. cerevisiae lipoyl transferase Lip3, in addition to transferring LA from the glycine cleavage system H protein to the pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) and α-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase (KGD) E2 subunits, can transfer this cofactor from the PDH complex to the KGD complex. In support of yeast as a model system for human metabolism, we demonstrate that the human octanoyl/lipoyl transferases can substitute for their counterparts in yeast to support respiratory growth and protein lipoylation. Like the wild-type yeast enzyme, the human lipoyl transferase LIPT1 responds to LA supplementation in the presence of the activating enzyme LplA. Conclusions In the yeast model system, the eukaryotic lipoylation pathway can use free LA and C8 as substrates when fatty/lipoic acid activating enzymes are targeted to mitochondria. Lip3 LA transferase has a wider substrate specificity than previously recognized. We show that these features of the lipoylation mechanism in yeast are conserved in mammalian mitochondria. Our findings have important implications for the development of effective therapies for the treatment of LA or mtFAS deficiency-related disorders.
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