A wide variety of agents activate AMPK, but in many cases the mechanisms remain unclear. We generated isogenic cell lines stably expressing AMPK complexes containing AMP-sensitive (wild-type, WT) or AMP-insensitive (R531G) γ2 variants. Mitochondrial poisons such as oligomycin and dinitrophenol only activated AMPK in WT cells, as did AICAR, 2-deoxyglucose, hydrogen peroxide, metformin, phenformin, galegine, troglitazone, phenobarbital, resveratrol, and berberine. Excluding AICAR, all of these also inhibited cellular energy metabolism, shown by increases in ADP:ATP ratio and/or by decreases in cellular oxygen uptake measured using an extracellular flux analyzer. By contrast, A769662, the Ca2+ ionophore, A23187, osmotic stress, and quercetin activated both variants to varying extents. A23187 and osmotic stress also increased cytoplasmic Ca2+, and their effects were inhibited by STO609, a CaMKK inhibitor. Our approaches distinguish at least six different mechanisms for AMPK activation and confirm that the widely used antidiabetic drug metformin activates AMPK by inhibiting mitochondrial respiration.
► AMPK is activated by a wide variety of different stresses, drugs, and xenobiotics ► We have developed a sensitive method to test which activators are AMP mediated ► Most, e.g., metformin and resveratrol, inhibit mitochondrial function and elevate AMP ► However, we can now distinguish six different mechanisms for AMPK activation