Carnitine--metabolism and functions

Carnitine was detected at the beginning of this century, but it was nearly forgotten among biochemists until its importance in fatty acid metabolism was established 50 years later. In the last 30 years, interest in the metabolism and functions of carnitine has steadily increased. Carnitine is synthesized in most eucaryotic organisms, although a few insects (and most likely some newborn animals) require it as a nutritional factor (vitamin BT). Carnitine biosynthesis is initiated by methylation of lysine. The trimethyllysine formed is subsequently converted to butyrobetaine in all tissues; the butyrobetaine is finally hydroxylated to carnitine in the liver and, in some animals, in the kidneys (see Fig. 1). It is released from these tissues and is then actively taken up by all other tissues. The turnover of carnitine in the body is slow, and the regulation of its synthesis is still incompletely understood. Microorganisms (e.g., in the intestine) can metabolize carnitine to trimethylamine, dehydrocarnitine (beta-keto-gamma-trimethylaminobutyric acid), betaine, and possibly to trimethylaminoacetone. In some insects carnitine can be converted to methylcholine, presumably with trimethylaminoacetone as an intermediate (see Fig. 3). In mammals the unphysiological isomer (+) carnitine is converted to trimethylaminoacetone. The natural isomer (-)carnitine is excreted unchanged in the urine, and it is still uncertain if it is degraded in mammalian tissues at all (Fig. 2). The only firmly established function of carnitine is its function as a carrier of activated fatty acids and activated acetate across the inner mitochondrial membrane. Two acyl-CoA:carnitine acyltransferases with overlapping chain-length specificities have been isolated: one acetyltransferase taking part in the transport of acetyl and short-chain acyl groups and one palmitoyltransferase taking part in the transport of long-chain acyl groups. An additional octanoyltransferase has been isolated from liver peroxisomes. Although a carnitine translocase that allows carnitine and acylcarnitine to penetrate the inner mitochondrial membrane has been deduced from functional studies (see Fig. 5), this translocase has not been isolated as a protein separate from the acyltransferases. Carnitine acetyltransferase and carnitine octanoyltransferase are also found in the peroxisomes. In these organelles the enzymes may be important in the transfer of acyl groups, which are produced by the peroxisomal beta-oxidation enzymes, to the mitochondria for oxidation in the citric acid cycle. The carnitine-dependent transport of activated fatty acids across the mitochondrial membrane is a regulated process. Malonyl-CoA inh