Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) is the most common mitochondrial disease. Mitochondrial modifiers are proposed to modify the phenotypic expression of primary LHON-associated mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations. In this study, we demonstrated that the LHON susceptibility allele (m.14502T > C, p. 58I > V) in the ND6 gene modulated the phenotypic expression of primary LHON-associated m.11778G > A mutation. Twenty-two Han Chinese pedigrees carrying m.14502T > C and m.11778G > A mutations exhibited significantly higher penetrance of optic neuropathy than those carrying only m.11778G > A mutation. We performed functional assays using the cybrid cell models, generated by fusing mtDNA-less ρo cells with enucleated cells from LHON patients carrying both m.11778G > A and m.14502T > C mutations, only m.14502T > C or m.11778G > A mutation and a control belonging to the same mtDNA haplogroup. These cybrids cell lines bearing m.14502T > C mutation exhibited mild effects on mitochondrial functions compared with those carrying only m.11778G > A mutation. However, more severe mitochondrial dysfunctions were observed in cell lines bearing both m.14502T > C and m.11778G > A mutations than those carrying only m.11778G > A or m.14502T > C mutation. In particular, the m.14502T > C mutation altered assemble of complex I, thereby aggravating the respiratory phenotypes associated with m.11778G > A mutation, resulted in a more defective complex I. Furthermore, more reductions in the levels of mitochondrial ATP and increasing production of reactive oxygen species were also observed in mutant cells bearing both m.14502T > C and m.11778G > A mutation than those carrying only 11778G > A mutation. Our findings provided new insights into the pathophysiology of LHON that were manifested by interaction between primary and secondary mtDNA mutations.

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