How Energy Shapes Life: Our Mitochondrial Partners

By Claire Asher, on 21 June 2013

Every cell in our bodies is a collaborative effort. A collaboration that dates back to just after the dawn of life itself, and marks one of the deepest divides in the tree of life. This symbiosis has had remarkably far-reaching effects, and is now thought to be key to understanding sex, ageing and death. The symbiotic entity in question is the mitochondrion; the power house of the cell. Biologists are increasingly realising the centrality of energy in understanding life, and a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, introduced by Nick Lane, focuses on the synthesis of energy, genes and evolution.

Mitonucleus in Blue
Artwork by Odra Noel www.odranoel.eu
Image Used with Permission

Around 1.5 billion years ago, a simple, single-celled bacterium engulfed another one. But it didn’t eat it. Instead, the two cells started working together, and over the following millennia developed a cooperative relationship that laid the foundation for multicellular life and for diversification on a scale never seen before. This symbiotic relationship founded a new type of life – the eukaryote. Unlike their prokaryote ancestors, the eukaryotes had a special advantage: they now had internal membranes. This enabled them to generate energy more efficiently, utilising a force generated across a membrane, known as the proton-motive force. This allowed them to support bigger cells, a wider variety of diets, and ultimately led some eukaryotes to group together into multicellular, sexual organisms such as plants and animals.

Hand Over Your Genes!
Since mitochondria originated as free-living single celled organisms, they came complete with their own genetic information. As the cooperative partnership between the eukaryote host and its mitochondrial partners developed, the majority of these genes were transferred to the nuclear (host cell) genome. Bizarrely, though, a few genes remained with the mitochondria. In fact, the same few genes stayed put in almost all eukaryotes, even though this process happened many times independently. So what is so special about these genes? Why keep them in the mitochondria when it is costly to do so?

A Mitochondrion

A Rapid Response System
It is thought these genes remain in the mitochondria because they are needed there to allow individual mitochondria to respond rapidly to changes in the energy demands of the cell. When mitochondria are out-of-sync with their surroundings, they start generating dangerous ‘reactive oxygen species’ (ROS), also known as free radicals. Free radicals are famous for causing cancer, and this is because they act as mutagens, causing changes to DNA they encounter. Mutations caused by ROS can cause all sorts of problems, not just cancer, and many of the diseases of old age are thought to be caused by ROS mutations.

So, we need to keep a small set of genes – those that code for key components of the respiratory chain that generates energy in mitochondria – in close proximity to their site of use so that they can quickly respond to the ever-changing cellular environment. This is also true for chloroplasts in plants, and recent research by Puthiyaveetil and colleagues in GEE lends support for this explanation. They have found evidence for a chemical partnership, unique to eukaryotes, which may be important in regulating chloroplast function to minimise ROS production.

Both mitochondria and chloroplasts have held onto a few genes in order to allow a rapid response to changes in demand. Trouble is, by keeping those genes there, they are vulnerable to attack from any free radicals that are generated. Mutations in these genes can often cause the production of more free radicals, causing a downward spiral that eventually leads to the death of the cell.

Unusual Inheritance


Mitochondrial genes are not inherited in the same way as normal nuclear genes. The majority of our genes (residing in the nucleus) are inherited biparentally, that is, we inherit half from our mother and half from our father. Mitochondrial genes, on the other hand, are inherited only in the maternal line, through the egg. Mitochondria are also present in sperm cells – they have to be, since they are crucial for providing energy to power all that intense swimming – but sperm mitochondria are killed shortly after fertilisation. Recent research by John Allen in GEE suggests that uniparental inheritance of mitochondrial genes relates back to those pesky free radicals.

In sperm cells, mitochondria are working overtime to make sure the sperm has the energy to swim and find the egg. In the process they are churning out free radicals, and damaging the mitochondrial DNA. The mitochondria inside sperm start to suffer from the ravages of old age. But we don’t want to pass on old mitochondria to our offspring. It seems evolution has found an elegant solution – switch off the mitochondria in egg cells and pass these young mitochondria on to your offspring. De Paula and colleagues looked at the mitochondria in eggs, sperm and the bell of moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) and found egg mitochondria were largely inactive and simple in structure. Egg mitochondria also showed reduced levels of gene expression, an almost non-existent membrane potential and produced no free radicals, indicating that they were not actively generating energy. Eggs don’t need that much energy compared to sperm, and they can borrow what they do need from other cells. By switching off the mitochondria in eggs, and making sure these are the only ones passed on to the next generation, eukaryotes can reduce the build-up of harmful age-related mutations in mitochondria from generation to generation.

The Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita)

Energy, Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life
The generation of energy is central to life. Mitochondria generate energy in all eukaryotic cells (animals, plants, fungi), and the symbiotic event that brought them into the eukaryotic cell changed life on Earth forever. Mitochondria proved massively beneficial, allowing eukaryotes to try new things, and ultimately produce the huge diversity of multicellular life we see today. However, housing another genome inside the cell came with nuances of its own, which led us to have sex, to age and die. Recent research in GEE highlights one way in which evolution has overcome one of these nuances – by switching off mitochondria in egg cells, offspring can inherit an undamaged copy, and because of this, ageing is not heritable. Other research in plants is broadening our understanding of why these genes are stored inside the mitochondria and chloroplasts in the first place. Throughout a plethora of different disciplines, mitochondria are proving crucial to understanding the fundamentals of life.

Original Articles:

() Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B

() Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B

Introduction to the Special Issue:

() Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B

This research was made possible by funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Leverhulme Trust