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Metformin, phenformin, and galegine inhibit complex IV activity and reduce glycerol-derived gluconeogenesis

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Metformin is the most commonly prescribed drug for the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus, yet the mechanism by which it lowers plasma glucose concentrations has remained elusive. Most studies to date have attributed metformin’s glucose-lowering effects to inhibition of complex I activity. Contrary to this hypothesis, we show that inhibition of complex I activity in vitro and in vivo does not reduce plasma glucose concentrations or inhibit hepatic gluconeogenesis. We go on to show that metformin, and the related guanides/biguanides, phenformin and galegine, inhibit complex IV activity at clinically relevant concentrations, which, in turn, results in inhibition of glycerol-3-phosphate dehydrogenase activity, increased cytosolic redox, and selective inhibition of glycerol-derived hepatic gluconeogenesis both in vitro and in vivo.


Metformin exerts its plasma glucose-lowering therapeutic effect primarily through inhibition of hepatic gluconeogenesis. However, the precise molecular mechanism by which metformin inhibits hepatic gluconeogenesis is still unclear. Although inhibition of mitochondrial complex I is frequently invoked as metformin’s primary mechanism of action, the metabolic effects of complex I inhibition have not been thoroughly evaluated in vivo. Here, we show that acute portal infusion of piericidin A, a potent and specific complex I inhibitor, does not reduce hepatic gluconeogenesis in vivo. In contrast, we show that metformin, phenformin, and galegine selectively inhibit hepatic gluconeogenesis from glycerol. Specifically, we show that guanides/biguanides interact with complex IV to reduce its enzymatic activity, leading to indirect inhibition of glycerol-3-phosphate (G3P) dehydrogenase (GPD2), increased cytosolic redox, and reduced glycerol-derived gluconeogenesis. We report that inhibition of complex IV with potassium cyanide replicates the effects of the guanides/biguanides in vitro by selectively reducing glycerol-derived gluconeogenesis via increased cytosolic redox. Finally, we show that complex IV inhibition is sufficient to inhibit G3P-mediated respiration and gluconeogenesis from glycerol. Taken together, we propose a mechanism of metformin action in which complex IV–mediated inhibition of GPD2 reduces glycerol-derived hepatic gluconeogenesis.