Disruption of protein folding in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) causes unfolded proteins to accumulate, triggering the unfolded protein response (UPR). UPR outputs in turn decrease ER unfolded proteins to close a negative feedback loop. However, because it is infeasible to directly measure the concentration of unfolded proteins in vivo, cells are generically described as experiencing "ER stress" whenever the UPR is active. Because ER redox potential is optimized for oxidative protein folding, we reasoned that measureable redox changes should accompany unfolded protein accumulation. To test this concept, we employed fluorescent protein reporters to dynamically measure ER redox status and UPR activity in single cells. Using these tools, we show that diverse stressors, both experimental and physiological, compromise ER protein oxidation when UPR-imposed homeostatic control is lost. Using genetic analysis we uncovered redox heterogeneities in isogenic cell populations, and revealed functional interlinks between ER protein folding, modification, and quality control systems.
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