To investigate protein import into the mitochondria of
Dictyostelium discoideum, green fluorescent protein (GFP) was fused as a reporter protein either to variable lengths of the N-terminal region of chaperonin 60 (the first 23, 40, 80, 97, and 150 amino acids) or to the mitochondrial targeting sequence of DNA topoisomerase II. The fusion proteins were expressed in AX2 cells under the actin-15 promoter. Fluorescence images of GFP transformants confirmed that Dictyosteliumchaperonin 60 is a mitochondrial protein. The level of the mitochondrially targeted GFP fusion proteins was unexpectedly much lower than the nontargeted (cytoplasmic) forms. The distinction between targeted and nontargeted protein activities was investigated at both the transcriptional and translational levels in vivo. We found that targeting GFP to the mitochondria results in reduced levels of the fusion protein even though transcription of the fusion gene and the stability of the protein are unaffected. [35S]methionine labeling and GFP immunoprecipitation confirmed that mitochondrially targeted GFP is translated at much slower rates than nontargeted GFP. The results indicate a novel phenomenon, import-associated translational inhibition, whereby protein import into the mitochondria limits the rate of translation. The simplest explanation for this is that import of the GFP fusion proteins occurs cotranslationally, i.e., protein synthesis and import into mitochondria are coupled events. Consistent with cotranslational import, Northern analysis showed that the GFP mRNA is associated with isolated mitochondria. This association occurred regardless of whether the GFP was fused to a mitochondrial leader peptide. However, the presence of an import-competent leader peptide stabilized the mRNA-mitochondria association, rendering it more resistant to extensive EDTA washing. In contrast with GFP, the mRNA of another test protein, aequorin, did not associate with the mitochondria, and its translation was unaffected by import of the encoded polypeptide into the mitochondria.