Mitochondrial Uncoupling Protein 2
Mitochondrial Uncoupling Protein 2

An uncoupling protein (UCP) is a mitochondrial inner membrane protein that is a regulated proton channel or transporter. An uncoupling protein is thus capable of dissipating the proton gradient generated by NADH-powered pumping of protons from the mitochondrial matrix to the mitochondrial intermembrane space. The energy lost in dissipating the proton gradient via UCPs is not used to do biochemical work. Instead, heat is generated. This is what links UCP to thermogenesis. However, not every type of UCPs are related to thermogenesis. Although UCP2 and UCP3 are closely related to UCP1, UCP2 and UCP3 do not affect thermoregulatory abilities of vertebrates.[1] UCPs are positioned in the same membrane as the ATP synthase, which is also a proton channel. The two proteins thus work in parallel with one generating heat and the other generating ATP from ADP and inorganic phosphate, the last step in oxidative phosphorylation.[2] Mitochondria respiration is coupled to ATP synthesis (ADP phosphorylation) but is regulated by UCPs.[3] UCPs belong to the mitochondrial carrier (SLC25) family.

Uncoupling proteins play a role in normal physiology, as in cold exposure or hibernation, because the energy is used to generate heat (see thermogenesis) instead of producing ATP. Some plants species use the heat generated by uncoupling proteins for special purposes. Eastern skunk cabbage, for example, keeps the temperature of its spikes as much as 20 °C higher than the environment, spreading odor and attracting insects that fertilize the flowers.[4] However, other substances, such as 2,4-dinitrophenol and carbonyl cyanide m-chlorophenyl hydrazone, also serve the same uncoupling function. Salicylic acid is also an uncoupling agent (chiefly in plants) and will decrease production of ATP and increase body temperature if taken in extreme excess.[5] Uncoupling proteins are increased by thyroid hormone, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and leptin.[6]


Scientists observed the thermogenic activity in brown adipose tissue, which eventually led to the discovery of UCP1, initially known as "Uncoupling Protein".[3] The brown tissue revealed elevated levels of mitochondria respiration and another respiration not coupled to ATP synthesis, which symbolized strong thermogenic activity.[3] UCP1 was the protein discovered responsible for activating a proton pathway that was not coupled to ADP phosphorylation (ordinarily done through ATP Synthase).[3]

In mammals

There are five UCP homologs known in mammals. While each of these performs unique functions, certain functions are performed by several of the homologs. The homologs are as follows:

Maintaining body temperature

The first uncoupling protein discovered, UCP1, was discovered in the brown adipose tissues of hibernators and small rodents, which provide non-shivering heat to these animals.[3] These brown adipose tissues are essential to maintaining the body temperature of small rodents, and studies with (UCP1)-knockout mice show that these tissues do not function correctly without functioning uncoupling proteins.[3] In fact, these studies revealed that cold-acclimation is not possible for these knockout mice, indicating that UCP1 is an essential driver of heat production in these brown adipose tissues.[7][8]

Elsewhere in the body, uncoupling protein activities are known to affect the temperature in micro-environments.[9][10] This is believed to affect other proteins' activity in these regions, though work is still required to determine the true consequences of uncoupling-induced temperature gradients within cells.[9]

Role in ATP concentrations

The effect of UCP2 and UCP3 on ATP concentrations varies depending on cell type.[9] For example, pancreatic beta cells experience a decrease in ATP concentration with increased activity of UCP2.[9] This is associated with cell degeneration, decreased insulin secretion, and type II diabetes.[9][11] Conversely, UCP2 in hippocampus cells and UCP3 in muscle cells stimulate production of mitochondria.[9][12] The larger number of mitochondria increases the combined concentration of ADP and ATP, actually resulting in a net increase in ATP concentration when these uncoupling proteins become coupled (i.e. the mechanism to allow proton leaking is inhibited).[9][12]

Maintaining concentration of reactive oxygen species

The entire list of functions of UCP2 and UCP3 is not known.[13] However, studies indicate that these proteins are involved in a negative-feedback loop limiting the concentration of reactive oxygen species (ROS).[14] Current scientific consensus states that UCP2 and UCP3 perform proton transportation only when activation species are present.[15] Among these activators are fatty acids, ROS, and certain ROS byproducts that are also reactive.[14][15] Therefore, higher levels of ROS directly and indirectly cause increased activity of UCP2 and UCP3.[14] This, in turn, increases proton leak from the mitochondria, lowering the proton-motive force across mitochondrial membranes, activating the electron transport chain.[13][14][15] Limiting the proton motive force through this process results in a negative feedback loop that limits ROS production.[14] Especially, UCP2 decreases the transmembrane potential of mitochondria, thus decreasing the production of ROS. Thus, cancer cells may increase the production of UCP2 in mitochondria.[16] This theory is supported by independent studies which show increased ROS production in both UCP2 and UCP3 knockout mice.[15]

This process is important to human health, as high-concentrations of ROS are believed to be involved in the development of degenerative diseases.[15]

Functions in neurons

This diagram shows the location of UCP1 with respect to the electron transport chain.
This diagram shows the location of UCP1 with respect to the electron transport chain.

By detecting the associated mRNA, UCP2, UCP4, and UCP5 were shown to reside in neurons throughout the human central nervous system.[17] These proteins play key roles in neuronal function.[9] While many study findings remain controversial, several findings are widely accepted.[9]

For example, UCPs alter the free calcium concentrations in the neuron.[9] Mitochondria are a major site of calcium storage in neurons, and the storage capacity increases with potential across mitochondrial membranes.[9][18] Therefore, when the uncoupling proteins reduce potential across these membranes, calcium ions are released to the surrounding environment in the neuron.[9] Due to the high concentrations of mitochondria near axon terminals, this implies UCPs play a role in regulating calcium concentrations in this region.[9] Considering calcium ions play a large role in neurotransmission, scientists predict that these UCPs directly affect neurotransmission.[9]

As discussed above, neurons in the hippocampus experience increased concentrations of ATP in the presence of these uncoupling proteins.[9][12] This leads scientists to hypothesize that UCPs improve synaptic plasticity and transmission.[9]


  1. ^ Gaudry MJ, Jastroch M (March 2019). "Molecular evolution of uncoupling proteins and implications for brain function". Neuroscience Letters. 696: 140–145. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2018.12.027. PMID 30582970.
  2. ^ Nedergaard J, Ricquier D, Kozak LP (October 2005). "Uncoupling proteins: current status and therapeutic prospects". EMBO Reports. 6 (10): 917–21. doi:10.1038/sj.embor.7400532. PMC 1369193. PMID 16179945.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Rousset S, Alves-Guerra MC, Mozo J, Miroux B, Cassard-Doulcier AM, Bouillaud F, Ricquier D (February 2004). "The biology of mitochondrial uncoupling proteins". Diabetes. 53 (suppl 1): S130-5. doi:10.2337/diabetes.53.2007.S130. PMID 14749278.
  4. ^ Garrett RH, Grisham CM (2013). Biochemistry (Fifth Edition, International ed.). China: Mary Finch. p. 668. ISBN 978-1-133-10879-5.
  5. ^ "California Poison Control System: Salicylates". Archived from the original on 2014-08-02.
  6. ^ Gong DW, He Y, Karas M, Reitman M (September 1997). "Uncoupling protein-3 is a mediator of thermogenesis regulated by thyroid hormone, beta3-adrenergic agonists, and leptin". The Journal of Biological Chemistry. 272 (39): 24129–32. doi:10.1074/jbc.272.39.24129. PMID 9305858.
  7. ^ Hagen T, Vidal-Puig A (February 2002). "Mitochondrial uncoupling proteins in human physiology and disease". Minerva Medica. 93 (1): 41–57. PMID 11850613.
  8. ^ Feldmann HM, Golozoubova V, Cannon B, Nedergaard J (February 2009). "UCP1 ablation induces obesity and abolishes diet-induced thermogenesis in mice exempt from thermal stress by living at thermoneutrality". Cell Metabolism. 9 (2): 203–9. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2008.12.014. PMID 19187776.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Andrews ZB, Diano S, Horvath TL (November 2005). "Mitochondrial uncoupling proteins in the CNS: in support of function and survival". Nature Reviews. Neuroscience. 6 (11): 829–40. doi:10.1038/nrn1767. PMID 16224498.
  10. ^ Horvath TL, Warden CH, Hajos M, Lombardi A, Goglia F, Diano S (December 1999). "Brain uncoupling protein 2: uncoupled neuronal mitochondria predict thermal synapses in homeostatic centers". The Journal of Neuroscience. 19 (23): 10417–27. PMID 10575039.
  11. ^ Zhang CY, Baffy G, Perret P, Krauss S, Peroni O, Grujic D, et al. (June 2001). "Uncoupling protein-2 negatively regulates insulin secretion and is a major link between obesity, beta cell dysfunction, and type 2 diabetes". Cell. 105 (6): 745–55. doi:10.1016/s0092-8674(01)00378-6. PMID 11440717.
  12. ^ a b c Diano S, Matthews RT, Patrylo P, Yang L, Beal MF, Barnstable CJ, Horvath TL (November 2003). "Uncoupling protein 2 prevents neuronal death including that occurring during seizures: a mechanism for preconditioning". Endocrinology. 144 (11): 5014–21. doi:10.1210/en.2003-0667. PMID 12960023.
  13. ^ a b Jastroch M, Divakaruni AS, Mookerjee S, Treberg JR, Brand MD (2010-06-14). "Mitochondrial proton and electron leaks". Essays in Biochemistry. 47: 53–67. doi:10.1042/bse0470053. PMC 3122475. PMID 20533900.
  14. ^ a b c d e Mailloux RJ, Harper ME (September 2011). "Uncoupling proteins and the control of mitochondrial reactive oxygen species production". Free Radical Biology & Medicine. 51 (6): 1106–15. doi:10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2011.06.022. PMID 21762777.
  15. ^ a b c d e Brand MD, Esteves TC (August 2005). "Physiological functions of the mitochondrial uncoupling proteins UCP2 and UCP3". Cell Metabolism. 2 (2): 85–93. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2005.06.002. PMID 16098826.
  16. ^ Sreedhar A, Zhao Y (May 2017). "Uncoupling protein 2 and metabolic diseases". Mitochondrion. 34: 135–140. doi:10.1016/j.mito.2017.03.005. PMC 5477468. PMID 28351676.
  17. ^ Richard D, Clavel S, Huang Q, Sanchis D, Ricquier D (November 2001). "Uncoupling protein 2 in the brain: distribution and function". Biochemical Society Transactions. 29 (Pt 6): 812–7. doi:10.1042/bst0290812. PMID 11709080.
  18. ^ Nicholls DG, Ward MW (April 2000). "Mitochondrial membrane potential and neuronal glutamate excitotoxicity: mortality and millivolts". Trends in Neurosciences. 23 (4): 166–74. doi:10.1016/s0166-2236(99)01534-9. PMID 10717676.

See also