Severe mitochondrial damage associated with low-dose radiation sensitivity in ATM- and NBS1-deficient cells

Low-dose radiation risks remain unclear owing to a lack of sufficient studies. We previously reported that low-dose, long-term fractionated radiation (FR) with 0.01 or 0.05 Gy/fraction for 31 d inflicts oxidative stress in human fibroblasts due to excess levels of mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (ROS). To identify the small effects of low-dose radiation, we investigated how mitochondria respond to low-dose radiation in radiosensitive human ataxia telangiectasia mutated (ATM)- and Nijmegen breakage syndrome (NBS)1-deficient cell lines compared with corresponding cell lines expressing ATM and NBS1. Consistent with previous results in normal fibroblasts, low-dose, long-term FR increased mitochondrial mass and caused accumulation of mitochondrial ROS in ATM- and NBS1-complemented cell lines. Excess mitochondrial ROS resulted in mitochondrial damage that was in turn recognized by Parkin, leading to mitochondrial autophagy (mitophagy). In contrast, ATM- and NBS1-deficient cells showed defective induction of mitophagy after low-dose, long-term FR, leading to accumulation of abnormal mitochondria; this was determined by mitochondrial fragmentation and decreased mitochondrial membrane potential. Consequently, apoptosis was induced in ATM- and NBS1-deficient cells after low-dose, long-term FR. Antioxidant N-acetyl-L-cysteine was effective as a radioprotective agent against mitochondrial damage induced by low-dose, long-term FR among all cell lines, including radiosensitive cell lines. In conclusion, we demonstrated that mitochondria are target organelles of low-dose radiation. Mitochondrial response influences radiation sensitivity in human cells. Our findings provide new insights into cancer risk estimation associated with low-dose radiation exposure.