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Title: Chronic cold exposure induces mitochondrial plasticity in deer mice native to high altitudes
Key points

Small mammals native to high altitude must sustain high rates of thermogenesis to cope with cold. Skeletal muscle is a key site of shivering and non‐shivering thermogenesis, but the importance of mitochondrial plasticity in cold hypoxic environments remains unresolved.

We examined high‐altitude deer mice, which have evolved a high capacity for aerobic thermogenesis, to determine the mechanisms of mitochondrial plasticity during chronic exposure to cold and hypoxia, alone and in combination.

Cold exposure in normoxia or hypoxia increased mitochondrial leak respiration and decreased phosphorylation efficiency and OXPHOS coupling efficiency, which may serve to augment non‐shivering thermogenesis. Cold also increased muscle oxidative capacity, but reduced the capacity for mitochondrial respiration via complex II relative to complexes I and II combined.

High‐altitude mice had a more oxidative muscle phenotype than low‐altitude mice.

Therefore, both plasticity and evolved changes in muscle mitochondria contribute to thermogenesis at high altitude.


Small mammals native to high altitude must sustain high rates of thermogenesis to cope with cold and hypoxic environments. Skeletal muscle is a key site of shivering and non‐shivering thermogenesis, but the importance of mitochondrial plasticity in small mammals at high altitude remains unresolved. High‐altitude deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) and low‐altitude white‐footed mice (P. leucopus) were born and raised in captivity, and chronically exposed as adults to warm (25°C) normoxia, warm hypoxia (12 kPa O2), cold (5°C) normoxia, or cold hypoxia. We then measured oxidative enzyme activities, oxidative fibre density and capillarity in the gastrocnemius, and used a comprehensive substrate titration protocol to examine the function of muscle mitochondria by high‐resolution respirometry. Exposure to cold in both normoxia or hypoxia increased the activities of citrate synthase and cytochrome oxidase. In lowlanders, this was associated with increases in capillary density and the proportional abundance of oxidative muscle fibres, but in highlanders, these traits were unchanged at high levels across environments. Environment had some distinct effects on mitochondrial OXPHOS capacity between species, but the capacity of complex II relative to the combined capacity of complexes I and II was consistently reduced in both cold environments. Both cold environments also increased leak respiration and decreased phosphorylation efficiency and OXPHOS coupling efficiency in both species, which may serve to augment non‐shivering thermogenesis. These cold‐induced changes in mitochondrial function were overlaid upon the generally more oxidative phenotype of highlanders. Therefore, both plasticity and evolved changes in muscle mitochondria contribute to thermogenesis at high altitudes.

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Author(s) / Creator(s):
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Publisher / Repository:
Date Published:
Journal Name:
The Journal of Physiology
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 5411-5426
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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