Copper induces cell death by targeting lipoylated TCA cycle proteins. Science. 2022;375(6586):1254-1261.
Copper is an essential cofactor for all organisms, and yet it becomes toxic if concentrations exceed a threshold maintained by evolutionarily conserved homeostatic mechanisms. How excess copper induces cell death, however, is unknown. Here, we show in human cells that copper-dependent, regulated cell death is distinct from known death mechanisms and is dependent on mitochondrial respiration. We show that copper-dependent death occurs by means of direct binding of copper to lipoylated components of the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle. This results in lipoylated protein aggregation and subsequent iron-sulfur cluster protein loss, which leads to proteotoxic stress and ultimately cell death. These findings may explain the need for ancient copper homeostatic mechanisms.