Import of proteins into mitochondria can be subdivided into several distinct steps. (1) Mitochondrial proteins are synthesized on free ribosomes and are released into cytosolic pools. Nucleoside triphosphates are required to keep precursors in a conformation competent for import. (2) Precursors are directed to mitochondria by specific targeting signals (in most cases contained in N-terminal presequences) and by binding to receptors on the surface of the outer membrane. (3) Precursors interact with a component in the outer membrane which is believed to facilitate membrane insertion (‘general insertion protein’). (4) Outer membrane proteins are then directly routed to their final location. Proteins of all other submitochondrial compartments are directed into translocation contact sites between outer and inner membranes. Transfer into contact sites is dependent on the membrane potential (ΔΨ) across the inner membrane. (5) Presequences of precursors are cleaved in the matrix by the mitochondrial processing peptidase in cooperation with the processing enhancing protein. (6) Precursors of the intermembrane space or the outer surface of the inner membrane have to be re-translocated back across the inner membrane (‘conservative sorting’).
Cytochrome c is an exception to this general import pathway. The precursor, apocytochrome c, is directly translocated across the outer membrane into the intermembrane space in a process independent of ΔΨ.