SCIENCE

7 things you (probably) didn’t know about mitochondria

Scientists are continuously discovering new and interesting facts about mitochondria. Check out these seven mitochondria facts.

5 mins to read
mitochondria

A mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell (you probably remember that from your high school biology class). But beyond this, mitochondria play so many amazing roles that help your cells and body function. Scientists are continuously discovering new and interesting facts about mitochondria. If you’re ready to dive back into high school biology – or simply want to learn more about the organelles that keep your body healthy and functioning – check out these seven mitochondria facts.

1. Midi-chlorians are based on mitochondria

Yes, Star Wars fans, you heard that right. The microscopic life-forms used to measure how strong ‘the force’ is within a Jedi is actually based on the mitochondria that live within your cells. In The Phantom Menace movie, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn describes midi-chlorians as “a microscopic life form that resides within all living cells...And we are symbionts with them (life forms, living together for mutual advantage). Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist.” The similarities between midi-chlorians and mitochondria are so similar that, in 2017, a hoax midi-chlorians scientific paper was accepted into four scientific journals.

2. Your mitochondria are designed to report stress

There’s a lot that researchers still don’t know about the basic mechanisms of mitochondria – but a recent discovery by researchers at LMU has provided a step forward. They found that a protein in humans, named DELE1, detects mitochondrial stress and then reports this stress to the cell. This protein-to-cell communication can then lead to repairs or programmed cell death (a type of cellular death that happens when cells are cleared from your body in a way that avoids damaging your tissues). It’s hoped that understanding how mitochondria report stress will contribute to finding a solution to mitochondrial dysfunction.

3. Mitochondrial stress can be carried across generations

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A team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences recently discovered that mitochondrial stress can be passed across more than 50 generations – in roundworms, that is. They found that stress is remembered by the mitochondria of worms generations after the stress was originally triggered – even though worms 50-years-on had not personally experienced stress triggers. It was also discovered that the decedents of worms with stressed mitochondria were slower to develop but lived longer.

4. When your cells divide, your mitochondria are evenly distributed

Researchers have also recently made a breakthrough discovery into what happens to mitochondria during cell division. In 2021, the research findings were published in Nature and outlined how a cell distributes mitochondria equally into the daughter cells that occur from cell division. Using advanced microscopy techniques, the researchers found that “a dense meshwork of subcortical actin cables” exists within cells and are responsible for ensuring mitochondria divide equally into the two new cells.

5. Mitochondria within your eyes act like minuscule lenses

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In a research paper published by Science Advances, scientists have outlined how mitochondria have evolved to function like a “microlens” in mammals: focusing incoming light and improving the resolution of what we see. It’s a discovery that could help researchers to develop future eye health treatments and, as reported by Quanta Magazine, suggests “that evolution has found new uses for very old parts of our cellular anatomy.”

6. Scientific advances have made mitochondrial donation possible

The Australian Government’s Department of Health describes mitochondrial donation as “an assisted reproductive technology which can help some women to avoid transmitting mitochondrial disease to their biological children”. The Australian Government is in the process of attempting to introduce this as a healthcare option in conjunction with IVF. It’s a process that will involve one woman’s mitochondrial donation to the nuclear DNA of prospective biological parents.

7. Only some antioxidants can make it into the mitochondria

MitoQ entering a cell

Experts predict that around 90% of oxidative stress originates during the mitochondria’s energy production process. Oxidative stress is one of the main contributors to cell stress – which ultimately damages the cells that make up your mind and body. The obvious solution to this stress is to provide your body with enough antioxidants to combat oxidative stress – but therein lies the problem: most antioxidants can’t get past two tough layers that exist to protect your mitochondria. As you age, antioxidants that naturally occur within your mitochondria decrease – leaving the building blocks of your body more and more susceptible to cell stress. And that’s where mitochondrial science has truly advanced. In the late 1990s, two scientists at the University of Otago created an antioxidant molecule that can make it into mitochondria. This molecule has since been scientifically proven to fight oxidative stress. The name of this patented antioxidant? MitoQ.

Find out how MitoQ supports the health of your mitochondria and cells

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