Network analysis reveals a causal role of mitochondrial gene activity in atherosclerotic lesion formation

Baiba Vilne, Josefin Skogsberg, Hassan Foroughi Asl, Husain Ahammad Talukdar, Thorsten Kessler, Johan L.M. Björkegren, Heribert Schunkert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


Background and aims Mitochondrial damage and augmented production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) may represent an intermediate step by which hypercholesterolemia exacerbates atherosclerotic lesion formation. Methods To test this hypothesis, in mice with severe but genetically reversible hypercholesterolemia (i.e. the so called Reversa mouse model), we performed time-resolved analyses of mitochondrial transcriptome in the aortic arch employing a systems-level network approach. Results During hypercholesterolemia, we observed a massive down-regulation (>28%) of mitochondrial genes, specifically at the time of rapid atherosclerotic lesion expansion and foam cell formation, i.e. between 30 and 40 weeks of age. Both phenomena - down-regulation of mitochondrial genes and lesion expansion - were largely reversible by genetically lowering plasma cholesterol (by >80%, from 427 to 54 ± 31 mg/L) at 30 weeks. Co-expression network analysis revealed that both mitochondrial signature genes were highly connected in two modules, negatively correlating with lesion size and supported as causal for coronary artery disease (CAD) in humans, as expression-associated single nucleotide polymorphisms (eSNPs) representing their genes overlapped markedly with established disease risk loci. Within these modules, we identified the transcription factor estrogen related receptor (ERR)-α and its co-factors PGC1-α and -β, i.e. two members of the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor γ co-activator 1 family of transcription regulators, as key regulatory genes. Together, these factors are known as major orchestrators of mitochondrial biogenesis and antioxidant responses. Conclusions Using a network approach, we demonstrate how hypercholesterolemia could hamper mitochondrial activity during atherosclerosis progression and pinpoint potential therapeutic targets to counteract these processes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-48
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Atherosclerosis
  • Co-expression network
  • Gene expression
  • Hypercholesterolemia
  • Mitochondria
  • Systems biology

Field of Science*

  • 3.1 Basic medicine

Publication Type*

  • 1.1. Scientific article indexed in Web of Science and/or Scopus database


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