Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Prosurvival Bcl-2 family members affect autophagy only indirectly, by inhibiting Bax and Bak.

PMID 24912196


Antiapoptotic B-cell lymphoma 2 (Bcl-2) family members such as Bcl-2, myeloid cell leukemia 1 (Mcl-1), and B-cell lymphoma-X large (Bcl-xL) are proposed to inhibit autophagy by directly binding to the BH3 domain of Beclin 1/Atg6. However, these Bcl-2 family proteins also block the proapoptotic activity of Bcl-2-associated X (Bax) and Bcl-2 homologous antagonist/killer (Bak), and many inducers of autophagy also cause cell death. Therefore, when the mitochondrial-mediated apoptosis pathway is functional, interpretation of such experiments is complicated. To directly test the impact of the endogenous antiapoptotic Bcl-2 family members on autophagy in the absence of apoptosis, we inhibited their activity in cells lacking the essential cell death mediators Bax and Bak. We also used inducible lentiviral vectors to overexpress Bcl-2, Bcl-xL, or Mcl-1 in cells and subjected them to treatments that promote autophagy. In the absence of Bax and Bak, Bcl-2, Bcl-xL, and Mcl-1 had no detectable effect on autophagy or cell death in myeloid or fibroblast cell lines. On the other hand, when Bax and Bak were present, inhibiting the prosurvival Bcl-2 family members stimulated autophagy, but this correlated with increased cell death. In addition, inhibition of autophagy induced by amino acid starvation, etoposide, or interleukin-3 withdrawal did not affect cell death in the absence of Bax and Bak. These results demonstrate that the antiapoptotic Bcl-2 family members do not directly inhibit components of the autophagic pathway but instead affect autophagy indirectly, owing to their inhibition of Bax and Bak.