Are mitochondria alive?

Are mitochondria alive?

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I'm working on an assignment for my IB biology class and some assistance would be highly appreciated. I've read several articles and I still haven't quite gotten the answer I'm looking for. I have to write a one page summary on whether or not Mitochondrion are alive or not.

Welcome to Biology.SE

Fields of interest

The assignment you have to write has a little bit to do with Biology and a little bit to do with Philosophy! The question of what is alive and what is not depends on the very definition of what is a living thing and this question is not of interest to biologists but only to philosopher.

How to nail this assignment

Therefore, for your assignment you will need to understand what a mitochondrion is (the Biology part) and to understand how do the different definitions of life apply to the mitochondrion (Philosophy part although you will need some knowledge in Biology to understand the relevance of these definitions).

What is a mitochondrion?

This question is too broad and cannot be answered here. Make sure to have a look at the wikipedia page. In short:

  • mitochondrion contain DNA
  • mitochondrion is the result of a bacteria that has somehow been internalized into a bigger cell (it is a symbiont). This is why today mitochondrion contain DNA. It is therefore not exactly an organelle like others. Note that plants, in addition to having mitochondrion, they have plasmids that are also consequences of a similar process of internalizing other form of life.
  • mitochondrion DNA evolve (of course)
  • mitochondrion are basically the energy factory of the cell.
  • mitochondrion are not able to live by themselves outside a living cell (to my knowledge).

Definitions of life

It is important to understand that the definition of life has absolutely no impact on biology and is nothing but a question of nomenclature.

There are a lot of definitions and I can't cover all of them here. You might want to have a look at this wiki page. The previous link lists the most common properties we think about when thinking about the definition of life.

  • Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, sweating to reduce temperature. Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells - the basic units of life.
  • Metabolism: Transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.[49] Growth: Maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
  • Adaptation: The ability to change over time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity, diet, and external factors. Response to stimuli: A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of multicellular organisms. A response is often expressed by motion; for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism), and chemotaxis.
  • Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism, or sexually from two parent organisms,"with an error rate below the sustainability threshold."

Related questions

The question of whether viruses are alive is a very common one. Here are two Biology.SE posts on the subject:

Among the great, unsolved evolutionary mysteries, the origin of eukaryotic cells—cells with nuclei—ranks high. Nucleated cells are the building blocks of all multicellular organisms, including us. And they are powered by mitochondria.1 Mitochondria use oxygen and a series of enzymes to extract the maximum possible energy from sugar and to package it in a usable form. Where did cells get these energy factories?

The most popular evolutionary story to explain how the last eukaryotic common ancestor (LECA) got mitochondria is that it ate them. Or rather that it ate small non-nucleated cells (prokaryotes, such as bacteria)—and that then those prokaryotes developed a symbiotic relationship with the host cell, supplied it with energy, and turned into mitochondria. That story, popularized in the 1970s by the late Dr. Lynn Margulis, is called the “serial endosymbiosis theory.” Because single-celled organisms and other cells like our white blood cells engulf debris and smaller microorganisms—an observable process called endosymbiosis—the serial endosymbiosis theory for the origin of eukaryotic cells seemed reasonable to evolutionists. After all, they reasoned, mitochondria and prokaryotes have some superficial similarities. Both are small. And while most of a eukaryotic cell’s DNA is in its nucleus, mitochondria have some DNA of their own as well as ribosomes to translate its genes into proteins. Nuclear DNA is in the form of double helical strands, but mitochondrial DNA is not. Though the mitochondrial genome is much smaller than a bacterial genome, both mitochondria and prokaryotes have circular DNA.

Because multicellular organisms are made of eukaryotic cells, many think the evolution of mitochondria was the stepping-stone that fueled multicellular evolution . However, there are a lot of problems with the story of mitochondrial evolution . Therefore, exactly when mitochondria evolved, the fate of the proto-mitochondria’s missing genes, and the identity of their ancestral bacteria have remained controversial.

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      Lifestyle Changes That May Improve Mitochondrial Function

      1) Intermittent Fasting

      Restricting calories and fasting intermittently, such as for fixed hours of the day, decreases energy levels in the body. To compensate, levels of NAD+ increase, which increases the ability of the mitochondria to produce ATP. This results in a subsequent rise in ATP levels due to improved mitochondrial function. This is still only a scientific hypothesis, though [2].

      2) Exercise

      In a similar manner to calorie restriction and fasting, exercising depletes energy from the body. This, in turn, improves mitochondrial function by increasing the availability of NAD+ molecules required to make ATP, according to some scientists [2].

      Additionally, exercise requires energy from the muscles to power through and provides oxygen throughout the body. Continuous exercise increases the number of mitochondria in muscle cells so that adequate ATP levels can be provided for use during exercise [3].

      In fact, one study in 8 healthy elderly volunteers found just 2 weeks of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) significantly increased mitochondrial function in the muscle. Additional studies should be encouraged [4].

      3) Cold Exposure

      Cold temperatures have a profound effect on the mitochondrial number in animals. Exposing rats to swimming in cold temperatures (23°C) increased mitochondrial generation by increasing the protein responsible for initiating mitochondrial synthesis (PGC-1alpha) [5].

      Similar results were seen in rats&rsquo liver and skeletal muscle cells after cold exposure for 15 days. These findings have not been confirmed in humans [6].

      4) Ketogenic diet

      The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that is claimed to switch your body from running on carbs to running on fats [7].

      When fats are broken down for energy, small molecules called ketone bodies are produced. These molecules are used for the production of ATP instead of glucose. Some researchers believe that this results in improved mitochondrial function (PGC-1alpha, SIRT1/3, AMPK activation), higher levels of ATP from the electron transport chain, and overall cellular health [7].

      One study found that a ketogenic diet slowed down mitochondrial myopathy (a muscle disease) in mice in part by increasing the number of new mitochondria (mitochondrial biogenesis). Human studies are lacking [8].

      Inside almost every cell in our bodies live little powerhouses known as mitochondria. These tiny organelles, with their own genome, primarily produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fuel on which your cells depend in order to function. If something goes wrong in the chain of mitochondrial electron transport components that ultimately produce ATP, disease results.

      “ATP production is the only system in the body that is under dual genetic control,” says Joeva J. Barrow, Nutritional Sciences. “Your nuclear genes and your mitochondrial genes work together to make the system functional. Any defect in either genome leads to disease because if you can’t produce enough ATP, then you don’t have enough energy in your body, and your cells begin to die. Typically tissues that are very energetic and require a lot of ATP, like the brain, heart, and muscles, are most susceptible.”

      Mitochondrial Disorders, What Are They

      There is no cure for mitochondrial disorders, which are hard to diagnose and impossible to treat. They result in complex diseases that are hardly household names, such as mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis, and stroke-like episodes (MELAS) and Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), yet they are more common than most people realize. One in 4,500 people suffer from a mitochondrial disease, and one in 200 show no symptoms but carry a mitochondrial mutation potentially able to trigger disease later in life or when passed on to the next generation. These asymptomatic carriers are all women, since mitochondria are maternally inherited.

      To understand the processes that cause mitochondrial disease, as well as potential treatments, the Barrow lab depends on unbiased, high-throughput screening mechanisms, such as small molecule chemical targeting and genome-wide CRISPR-Cas9 gene ablations. “Our goal is to identify any genes or proteins that may be linked to mitochondrial bioenergetics, then significantly leverage them to see if we can push them toward therapy,” Barrow says.

      Studying the Genetics and Biochemistry Underlying Mitochondrial Disorders

      The researchers use a combination of cell and mouse models, in addition to tissue from patients, to explore the genetics and biochemistry behind these diseases. “Our typical experiments start off with seeing how long we can keep cells with damaged mitochondria alive,” Barrow says. “We put them under certain nutrient conditions we know will kill them because they can’t make ATP. Then we try to promote survival by treating them with small molecules or by modifying certain genes.”

      Once they’ve established which compounds can rescue the cells, Barrow and her collaborators move on to the discovery phase of their research. “We have to figure exactly what the compound does,” Barrow says. “What is it binding? How is it targeting this function? How is it boosting ATP production? To maximize the potential for therapy, we need to answer questions like those. At the same time, we might discover other additional factors that show therapeutic potential along the way.”

      “My lab is looking at genetic and molecular components to discover if some people have a predisposition that makes them more or less obese.”

      Barrow is following up on her earlier work as a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, where she profiled 10,015 small molecules—naturally occurring and synthesized compounds that target various proteins in the body. She and her colleagues identified more than 100 promising chemical compounds. Now her lab is characterizing them to evaluate their ability to correct mitochondrial damage, specifically in muscle cells. So far, a significant subset has a positive effect, and the researchers are trying to pin down exactly how they work.

      Obesity and Metabolic Diseases, Mitochondria-Related

      Continuing her research connected to mitochondria, Barrow also explores metabolic disease in the context of obesity. Worldwide, 1.9 million, or one in three people, are overweight, and 41 million of them are children under the age of five. With obesity comes associated metabolic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension.

      “Every year we do the statistics on obesity, and no matter how much we counsel on diet and exercise, no matter how easy it should be to maintain an energetic balance, something is amiss,” Barrow says. “So my lab is looking at genetic and molecular components to discover if some people have a predisposition that makes them more or less obese or to see if we can take advantage of the molecular system to increase energy expenditure. This could offer another form of therapy to fight against obesity in conjunction with diet and exercise.”

      Thermogenic Fat

      The researchers have turned their attention to thermogenic fat. This subset of fat cells, also called brown and beige fat, is prevalent in animals that go through hibernation, but scientists recently discovered it in humans as well. “Brown and beige fat don’t only store fat molecules, like white fat does, they have a special ability to burn them to produce heat,” Barrow explains.

      Thermogenic fat has a protein known as uncoupling protein 1 that pokes a hole in the membrane of mitochondria, allowing protons to leak out. These protons are part of a proton gradient that is integral to the production of ATP. Without them, mitochondria are no longer able to effectively make the chemical. “Your body’s response is to start burning everything it can to try to maintain the proton gradient,” Barrow says. “And as a result, your energy expenditure goes through the roof.”

      Brown fat is prevalent in newborn humans where it serves to keep infants from going into thermal shock as they exit from maternal body temperature to the much colder temperature outside the womb. Later, other mechanisms, such as shivering, serve to keep adults warm while maintaining their body weight. “But adults still have brown fat that we can activate to increase energy expenditure components,” Barrow explains.

      Using proteomics, metabolomics, and genomics, Barrow and her colleagues seek to unveil factors that will activate brown and beige fat cells. “We have discovered a host of novel genes that are involved in turning on the thermogenic pathway that protects you against obesity,” Barrow says. “Now it will be fascinating to discover how these genes work so that they can be targeted toward therapy.”

      For Barrow, who has a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology, with clinical expertise as a registered dietitian, mitochondria are a perfect target for research. “The mitochondria are the metabolic hub of the cell,” she says. “No matter what aspect of metabolism you study—lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins—they all feed back into whether or not you can effectively produce energy. Everything my lab works on centers around this very mighty, tiny organelle that’s so important to life.”

      Why we Age: Mitochondrial Dysfunction

      Mitochondrial dysfunction is one of the root causes of aging as described in the Hallmarks of Aging [1]. As they age, mitochondria lose their ability to provide cellular energy and release reactive oxygen species that harm cells.

      What are mitochondria?

      Mitochondria, which are often called the powerhouses of cells, act like miniature factories, converting the food we eat into usable energy in the form of a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) [2]. ATP provides energy to fuel a myriad of cellular processes, such as muscle contraction, nerve impulse propagation, and protein synthesis. ATP is common to all forms of life and is often referred to as the “molecular unit of currency” of intracellular energy transfer.

      Interestingly, mitochondria did not originate as part of multicellular life they are stowaways in our cells and have their own unique DNA, which is separate from our own. It is widely thought that they merged with a very early ancestor of all multicellular life to form a symbiotic relationship [3]. Mitochondria become dysfunctional as we age and are host to their own separate (though similar) forms of damage.

      How do mitochondria become dysfunctional?

      As we age, our mitochondria go through changes that harm their ability to provide us with chemical energy while causing the release of harmful reactive oxygen species [4], which can cause DNA mutations leading to cancer [5-6] and even harm proteostasis [7]. Reactive oxygen species also drive muscle weakness [8], a further smoldering level of background inflammation (inflammaging) [9], and the associated bone frailty [10], senescent cell load [11] and immune suppression [12] of old age. Mitochondria from elderly people even look different [13] they swell while their numbers dwindle, unable to replace themselves as quickly in their dysfunctional state [14-15].

      These problems aren’t all that reactive oxygen species can cause, however they can also cause mutations in mitochondrial DNA. [16] While some studies suggest that this damage is not done directly [17], it must be remembered that reactive oxygen species can damage the very proteins that would control the reproduction of mitochondria and introduce additional errors into the copies by extension [7].

      While most of these issues are detected by quality-control mechanisms in the cell [18], causing damaged mitochondria to be destroyed through a process called mitophagy, these systems become less and less effective with age, decreasing in activity and eventually allowing errors to slip through. In some cases, this isn’t so bad each cell contains a large number of mitochondria, so ten or even a few hundred being mutated isn’t a problem. However, some of these errors can make the dysfunctional mitochondria survive longer than healthy mitochondria. In this way, some types of dysfunctional mitochondria build up and eventually become more common than healthy ones [19].

      Additionally, as aging progresses, NAD+ levels in human cells decrease, causing a breakdown in communication between the human nucleus and mitochondrial DNA, again leading to decreased energy production and increased reactive oxygen species production [20].

      How could we prevent or reverse this?

      A number of methods have been proposed for preventing this. First of all, the issues with NAD+ could be solved by some method of NAD+ supplementation, slowing down the accumulation of this damage. In addition, the most vital parts of the mitochondrial DNA could be moved to another part of the cell – the nucleus – giving it access to better DNA repair mechanisms and keeping it away from the source of reactive oxygen species [21]. This approach has been demonstrated for some of this vital code [22]. Of particular note, the study proving that this is possible was funded on our crowdfunding platform!


      Mitochondrial dysfunction is an important part of the aging process. These miniature chemical engines, while capable of self-replication, gradually become more dysfunctional with age through a variety of mechanisms, causing harm to our cells and encouraging more dysfunction in a vicious cycle. Quality control mechanisms hold this at bay for a time, but they eventually fail, leading to multiple diseases of aging and a long-lasting, chronic background level of inflammation called inflammaging.


      [1] López-Otín, C., Blasco, M. A., Partridge, L., Serrano, M., & Kroemer, G. (2013). The hallmarks of aging. Cell, 153(6), 1194-1217.

      [2] Lodish, H., Berk, A., Zipursky, S. L., Matsudaira, P., Baltimore, D., & Darnell, J. (2000). Electron Transport and Oxidative Phosphorylation.

      [3] Gray, M. W., Burger, G., & Lang, B. F. (2001). The origin and early evolution of mitochondria. Genome biology, 2(6), reviews1018-1.

      [4] Lesnefsky, E. J., & Hoppel, C. L. (2006). Oxidative phosphorylation and aging. Ageing research reviews, 5(4), 402-433.

      [5] McAdam, E., Brem, R., & Karran, P. (2016). Oxidative Stress–Induced Protein Damage Inhibits DNA Repair and Determines Mutation Risk and Therapeutic Efficacy. Molecular Cancer Research.

      [6] Suzuki, D. T., & Griffiths, A. J. (1976). An introduction to genetic analysis. WH Freeman and Company..

      [7] Korovila, I., Hugo, M., Castro, J. P., Weber, D., Höhn, A., Grune, T., & Jung, T. (2017). Proteostasis, oxidative stress and aging. Redox biology, 13, 550-567.

      [8] Alway, S. E., Mohamed, J. S., & Myers, M. J. (2017). Mitochondria Initiate and Regulate Sarcopenia. Exercise and sport sciences reviews, 45(2), 58-69.

      [9] Rimessi, A., Previati, M., Nigro, F., Wieckowski, M. R., & Pinton, P. (2016). Mitochondrial reactive oxygen species and inflammation: molecular mechanisms, diseases and promising therapies. The international journal of biochemistry & cell biology, 81, 281-293.

      [10] Lane, R. K., Hilsabeck, T., & Rea, S. L. (2015). The role of mitochondrial dysfunction in age-related diseases. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-Bioenergetics, 1847(11), 1387-1400.

      [11] Kamogashira, T., Hayashi, K., Fujimoto, C., Iwasaki, S., & Yamasoba, T. (2017). Functionally and morphologically damaged mitochondria observed in auditory cells under senescence-inducing stress. NPJ aging and mechanisms of disease, 3(1), 2.

      [12] Frasca, D., & Blomberg, B. B. (2016). Inflammaging decreases adaptive and innate immune responses in mice and humans. Biogerontology, 17(1), 7-19.

      [13] Gerencser, A. A., Doczi, J., Töröcsik, B., Bossy-Wetzel, E., & Adam-Vizi, V. (2008). Mitochondrial swelling measurement in situ by optimized spatial filtering: astrocyte-neuron differences. Biophysical journal, 95(5), 2583-2598.

      [14] Seo, A. Y., Joseph, A. M., Dutta, D., Hwang, J. C., Aris, J. P., & Leeuwenburgh, C. (2010). New insights into the role of mitochondria in aging: mitochondrial dynamics and more. J Cell Sci, 123(15), 2533-2542.

      [15] Figge, M. T., Reichert, A. S., Meyer-Hermann, M., & Osiewacz, H. D. (2012). Deceleration of fusion–fission cycles improves mitochondrial quality control during aging. PLoS computational biology, 8(6), e1002576.

      [16] Lee, H. C., & Wei, Y. H. (2007). Oxidative stress, mitochondrial DNA mutation, and apoptosis in aging. Experimental biology and medicine, 232(5), 592-606.

      [17] Itsara, L. S., Kennedy, S. R., Fox, E. J., Yu, S., Hewitt, J. J., Sanchez-Contreras, M., … & Pallanck, L. J. (2014). Oxidative stress is not a major contributor to somatic mitochondrial DNA mutations. PLoS genetics, 10(2), e1003974.

      [18] Srivastava, S. (2017). The mitochondrial basis of aging and age-related disorders. Genes, 8(12), 398.

      [19] Luo, C., Li, Y., Wang, H., Feng, Z., Li, Y., Long, J., & Liu, J. (2013). Mitochondrial accumulation under oxidative stress is due to defects in autophagy. Journal of cellular biochemistry, 114(1), 212-219.

      [20] Gomes, A. P., Price, N. L., Ling, A. J., Moslehi, J. J., Montgomery, M. K., Rajman, L., … & Mercken, E. M. (2013). Declining NAD+ induces a pseudohypoxic state disrupting nuclear-mitochondrial communication during aging. Cell, 155(7), 1624-1638.

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      [22] Boominathan, A., Vanhoozer, S., Basisty, N., Powers, K., Crampton, A. L., Wang, X., … & O’Connor, M. S. (2016). Stable nuclear expression of ATP8 and ATP6 genes rescues a mtDNA Complex V null mutant. Nucleic acids research, 44(19), 9342-9357.

      Introducing the Mitochondria

      In order to survive and thrive, microorganisms require energy. Microorganisms need energy to be able to keep up homeostasis (inner cell environment stableness), making sure a well-working metabolism, also to keep the body's essential functions working [1]. Mitochondria (mitochondrion = singular) established fact as the power place of the cell. Its name was produced by the Greek phrase "mitos" (thread) & "chondros" (granule). Therefore, the name mitochondria mean "thread-like granule" [2].

      The first recorded recognition of mitochondria was initially detected back in 1857 by way of a Swiss physiologist and anatomist, Albert von Kolliker as "granule-like" constructions within muscle cells. During this time, microscopes were very simple so scientists that time can only see and observe the several organelles in a cell scheduled to very harsh morphology observations. This means scientists that time have yet to find the value of mitochondria in cell life. In later years, German pathologist and histologist Richard Altmann utilized a dye approach in order to stain the structures to make them easier to imagine under a light microscope. This technique ended up being successful and he could distinguish the first mitochondria from other cell organelles. Altmann then known as this organelle the "bioblast" and he presumed this organelle to be essential in cellular activity. Later in 1898, German scientist Carl Benda eventually copyrighted the name mitochondria to displace bioblast. Further researches regarding the functions, roles, mechanisms, and dysfunctions of the mitochondria in cells are still continuing even until today [2]. The breakthrough of mitochondria was called one of the biggest science discoveries ever matching to Kendall Haven's reserve, "100 Greatest Science Discoveries ever" [3].

      Mitochondria are dual membrane-enclosed organelles, indicating it is covered with an unbiased membrane. It has an outside membrane and also an internal membrane. These membranes are made up of any bilayer of phospholipids. These two membranes then enclose two compartments which will be the intermembrane space and the mitochondrial matrix (for more info, see the subsequent section). The shape of mitochondria resembles a kidney or a sausage. These are around 1-10 m long making them the greatest organelle found free in the cytoplasm [5].

      Mitochondria are available in almost all eukaryotic cells and their figures differ in each cell. The number of mitochondria in a cell depends upon how much energy the cell needs. It can range from just only one to a few thousand per cell. If a particular cell needs more energy than another cell, the amount of mitochondria within the specific cell would be greater than that of the other cell. For example, muscle skin cells require more energy than kidney skin cells because muscle cells perform more work than kidney skin cells because of their contraction quantities and power. The mitochondria can occasionally be found situated between your myofibrils of muscles or at the base of the sperm cell's flagellum [6]. Through the use of an electron micrograph, mitochondria can be seen forming a sophisticated 3 dimensional branching network inside the cell with the cytoskeleton [7].

      Due to its independent bacteria-like DNA and ribosomes, mitochondria are presumed to be once an external bacterial symbiote that was then engulfed by a more substantial procaryotic cell. This bacterial symbiote then wasn't broken down in reality, it was maintained alive within the bigger cell which then goes through a mutualism symbiosis with the symbiote. The symbiote provides energy for the bigger cell and the bigger cell provides coverage and the right living environment for the much smaller symbiote cell. This specific incident was thought by many scientists as the beginning of modern eukaryotic cells. This specific theory is called the endosymbiosis theory. North american biologist Lynn Margulis was the individual who developed and outspreaded the theory worldwide. Due to its 3rd party DNA & ribosomes, the replication of mitochondria can be done independent from the mom cell this implies its replication can be done independently from the normal nuclei replication that largely occurs [8].

      The Psychological Powerhouse

      It’s likely that you remember this statement to be important enough that your teacher drilled this idea into your brain.

      Well there might be a bit more to this generalized statement of Biology. What if I told you that how you feel and think and deal with stress actually involves the mitochondria?

      Before going into that, let’s refresh our memories about what exactly “the powerhouse of the cell” generally means for the Mitochondria.

      Our body is made up of trillions of cells! Cells are the Lego pieces that fit together to create the structure that forms us as humans. In cells, there are different subunits that help the cell called organelles. These tiny parts of cells each have a specific function. Mitochondria are one of those organelles– and I am sure you might have an initial guess about what they do!

      These small but mighty organelles are organized by the different regions created by their two membranes – the outer and inner membranes. These membranes are boundaries that keep together parts of the mitochondria and determine what can enter into the mitochondria. The outer membrane is focused on housing proteins and enzymes, the pieces that provide structure, regulate processes, and transport materials throughout the cell. The inner membrane, which includes the cristae (the folds) and the matrix (the space), include space for chemical reactions, production of ATP (energy), and mitochondrial DNA (genetic information).

      We call these little organelles the powerhouse because of one of its central functions: energy production. Think of where you would be without energy: on your bed, lazily watching Netflix? Yes – in the colloquial sense. But, without your mitochondria’s energy production, your cells are not going to function to keep you alive.

      Mitochondria are like windmills that convert energy into power for the farmhouses they break down sugar into energy, and this useable energy is utilized by all the other important cells to make our bodies function.

      You might now be asking if mitochondria are the source of physical energy, what do they have to do with a Psychological Powerhouse? Well, while Biology, Neuroscience, and Psychology have always been friendly, these fields are often afraid to interact too much. A lot of factors contribute to this disconnect between the fields, but it is important to understand this broader interaction to understand that how we function as humans physically impacts us mentally.

      When we take a step back and examine a larger picture, we find that this powerhouse organelle, whose main focus is energy production, actually has a very interesting relationship with psychological stress.

      The mitochondria’s functions extend far past energy production. In the course of producing energy, mitochondria have the ability to sense stress mediators, such as its ability to sense environmental, metabolic, and neuroendocrine stressors, whether they are a lack of nutrients or particular hormones. Picard & McEwen (2018) explored this relationship between psychological stress and mitochondria.

      When a stressor occurs, there is an effect on the way mitochondria interact with each other and undergo morphological and function changes. Think of how the way you and your Uncle interact differently at a funeral. You dress, talk to each other, and hug differently than when you normally see her on a regular basis because you are in a different and stressful environment mitochondria also look and act different with each other when undergoing stress.

      In the short-term these types of changes may result in adaptation, but in the long term, stressors can result in chronic alterations within the mitochondria (Picard et al., 2015).

      When multiple stressors cumulate to the dysregulation of the immune system in the body, allostatic load occurs, and it contributes to long-term effects on the body – both physically and mentally.

      What exactly is an allostatic load? Have you ever started to make a pile of semi-clean clothes on that one particular chair in your room? They are dirty enough not to make it into your dresser, but clean enough that you don’t need to put them in the laundry. Allostatic load is when that pile eventually gets so high over time that it becomes too heavy to physically carry and you mentally cannot determine how to fix the pile as it is overwhelming the clothes are the different types of stress that pile up metaphorically in your body, physically and mentally. This concept can occur in the mitochondria as well.

      When the mitochondria sense the stress mediators (such as increases in the stress hormones cortisol and catecholamine), changes occur to its structure and functions. Over time, these constant changes damage the mitochondrial DNA that is stored in the organelle and diminish its capacity for energy production. Thus, the important systematic processes that are in connection with the mitochondria are negatively influenced, meaning that your body’s cells are no longer recieving all the energy they need. This effect of chronic stress on mitochondria is termed mitochondrial allostatic load (MAL).

      Mitochondrial Allostatic Load (MAL)

      Think how if you kept attending those funerals as well as had other stressful events, you would feel physically and emotionally drained from all the changes in behavior you have when interacting with other people. Your relationships would be negatively affected by your lack of energy and mood changes from the cumulation of stressful events.

      Just like this cumulation from stress would have many negative consequences for your life, chronic stressors have many negative affects to mitochondria because of MAL.

      MAL can result in cellular dysfunction, which can lead to health effects like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cognitive issues, among others.

      MAL can also impact brain structure and function, such that areas of the brain like the hippocampus (responsible for explicit memory) and the medial prefrontal cortex (responsible for decision-making) are atrophied (shrinking quality).

      Overall, it is apparent through this framework of MAL, that our favorite powerhouse of the cell is also a psychological powerhouse – one that has interactions with psychological stressors and impacts our brain as well as our physiological functioning.

      If you want to pretend you are in Biology class again, below are some videos and websites to learn more about Mitochondria:

      Live mitochondria seen in unprecedented detail: photobleaching in STED microscopy overcome

      Inner membranes of live mitochondria under a STED microscope imaged using the MitoPB Yellow fluorescent marker molecule created by researchers at the Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules (ITbM) at Nagoya University. The outer membranes of the mitochondria are invisible. The marker molecule can withstand the STED beam for a relatively long time, which allows time-lapse imaging of the live subject. Sample preparation is much easier for an optical microscope than a Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM), requiring about an hour rather than a day. Cells cannot be imaged alive using TEM. The mitochondria have been treated with a reagent that suppresses DNA replication, inducing dysfunction, in order to see their survival (left) and dying (right) processes. Being able to see the dysfunction processes occurring inside mitochondria will lead to a better way of diagnosing human mitochondrial disease - and perhaps even a cure. Credit: © ITbM, Nagoya University

      Light microscopy is the only way in which we can look inside a living cell, or living tissues, in three dimensions. An electron microscope only gives a two-dimensional view, and the organic sample would quickly burn up due to the extreme heat of the electron beam, and therefore cannot be observed alive. Moreover, by marking the biomolecules of the structure we are interested in with a specially designed fluorescent molecule, we can distinguish it from the surroundings: this is fluorescence microscopy.

      Until the mid-1990s fluorescence microscopy was hampered by basic physics: due to the diffraction limit, any features on the sample closer together than about 250 nanometres would be blurred together. Viruses and individual proteins are much smaller than this, so they could not be studied this way. But around 1994, in a wonderful lesson teaching us that we must take care when applying fundamental physical principles, Stefan Hell discovered Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED) microscopy, which is now one of several optical microscopy approaches that achieve "super-resolution," resolution beyond the diffraction limit. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy," together with Eric Betzig and William Moerner.

      To see why the diffraction limit is a problem, imagine the structure of interest is very small, say, 50 nanometres across, like a virus, and has been marked with a fluorescent biomolecule. Now imagine illuminating it with a laser spot, say, 200 nanometres in diameter. The illuminated marker molecules emit light spontaneously, at random times, by fluorescence, with the probability dropping rapidly with time. The photons from many fluorescing molecules are focused onto a detector using lenses, creating a single featureless pixel. It's not fully bright because only a small proportion of the sample in the illuminated circle contains fluorescent molecules. If you were to move the laser 200 nanometres in any direction, to where, in this example, no fluorescent molecules are present, the signal will certainly go dark. So, this rather dim pixel tells us that something is present inside this sample area 200 nanometres in diameter. The diffraction limit prevents us forming pixels from smaller areas, if we use the basic approach.

      The physical idea of STED microscopy is very simple. With the laser spot illuminating the region around the small fluorescing structure again, suppose you somehow stop light being sent to the detector from as large an area as possible within the spot—leaving a much smaller spot, say, 60 nanometres in diameter. Now if you move the laser 60 nanometres in any direction and the signal goes dark, the pixel in the image represents the presence of structure up to 60 nanometres across. The diffraction limit has been beaten. Of course, one such pixel is featureless, but a sharp image of mitochondria can be built up by scanning across and recording many pixels of varying brightness. (See Figure 1. "Time-gated STED Microscopy" was used to capture most of the images in this paper.)

      Stefan Hell's Nobel Prize-winning discovery consists of two insights. First, he thought of the idea of stopping light being sent to the detector from as large an area as possible within an illuminated spot whose size matches the diffraction limit. Second, he figured out how to actually achieve it.

      Two lasers illuminate the same spot. The first laser excites the marker molecule electrons and they decay spontaneously back to their ground state, each emitting a visible photon of a specific wavelength. (This is fluorescence.) The process is random, with the emission probability decreasing with time fairly quickly, meaning that most photons are emitted within the first few nanoseconds of the sample being illuminated. A second laser, the "STED beam," shaped with a hole in the middle so as not to affect the marker molecules there, is tuned to stimulate emission of a photon by the excited marker molecule in the outer ring. But how are these photons distinguished from photons emitted from the middle?

      In response to being deprived of nutrients, mitochondria fuse together and increase the number of cristae. (a) Frames from a time-lapse sequence showing two separate mitochondria fusing together to form a single mitochondrion. The outer membranes of the mitochondria are invisible: we are seeing the inner membranes fusing together. (b) Frames from a time-lapse sequence showing two cristae inside a single mitochondrion fusing together. (See Video 2 in the Supplementary Material on the paper's PNAS webpage.) The scale bars represent 2mm. Credit: © ITbM, Nagoya University

      The emission process from the outer ring is also random but happens much more quickly, the probability decreasing rapidly, meaning that most of these photons are emitted within a nanosecond or so. As the two superimposed beams scan across the sample, by the time the centre of the ring is fluorescing, the surrounding molecules have already been forced into their ground state by emitting a photon—they have been "switched off." The STED microscopy technique relies on clever timing in this way. In principle, the size of the glowing central spot can be made as small as you want, so any resolution is possible. However, the doughnut-shaped "STED beam" would then be delivering energy in the form of concentrated visible laser light to a larger area of the living cell, risking killing it.

      Nevertheless, the process is not ideal, and the resulting image loses some sharpness because some marker molecules in the outer ring are not properly switched off—the process is probabilistic, after all—and when they do fluoresce they contaminate the signal from the centre. However, due to the different timing of the spontaneous and stimulated emission, the earliest photons to arrive at the detector are from regions illuminated by the highest STED beam intensity, and the last photons to arrive are most likely from marker molecules located in the central spot. So by waiting a short time (around one nanosecond) before recording the image, most of the photons from the outer ring can be filtered out. This is called "Time-gated STED Microscopy." Further sharpening of the image is achieved through a process called deconvolution.

      The invention of super-resolution microscopy heralded a leap forward in the life sciences. Living organisms could be observed at an unprecedented resolution. However, time-lapse sequences of images could not be made over any decent length of time because the marker molecules would degrade under the intense STED beam and stop fluorescing. This is the photobleaching problem. The damaged marker molecules can also become toxic to the cell.

      The photobleaching problem solved

      Shigehiro Yamaguchi and Masayasu Taki, of Nagoya University's Institute for Transformative Bio-Molecules (ITbM), led a research team that has developed a marker molecule, called "MitoPB Yellow," that is absorbed by the inner membrane of mitochondria, including the cristae—the fold-like structures—and has a long lifetime under a STED beam. The idea for the marker molecule targeting mitochondria came from co-author Chenguang Wang, of the ITbM. Multicolour STED imaging with a single STED laser is also possible and the researchers expect that fluorescent markers similar to MitoPB Yellow should find a wide range of applications in other super-resolution techniques as well (such as those developed by Eric Betzig and William Moerner).

      To demonstrate the practical usefulness of MitoPB Yellow for live-cell imaging, the group placed mitochondria under conditions that are known to cause certain structural changes—but until now these have only been observed using transmission electron microscopy, which cannot be used on live cells. The mitochondria were treated with a reagent that suppresses DNA replication, inducing dysfunction, in order to observe their survival and dying processes.

      Video 1. Live mitochondria imaged in unprecedented detail -- for an unprecedented length of time -- using the MitoPB Yellow fluorescent marker created by Nagoya University-led researchers. The marker molecule is designed to be absorbed by only certain membranes within each mitochondrion, and retains its fluoresescence under the STED microscope for a very long time. This video was shot at 1.5 fps and a resolution of 90nm. Still images were captured at 60nm resolution. In response to being deprived of nutrients, mitochondria fuse together and increase the number of cristae. This time-lapse sequence shows events such as two separate mitochondria fusing together to form a single mitochondrion and a single mitochondrium fusing together. Note that the outer membranes of the mitochondria are invisible: we are seeing the inner membranes fusing together. Credit: ITbM, Nagoya University

      Then, using Time-gated STED Microscopy, the research team made still images at 60 nanometre resolution (about one thousandth of the width of a human hair), as well as time-lapse image sequences showing the mitochondria responding to a deprivation of nutrients by changing form in order to survive. The long image sequences—of up to 600 images—are the first ever made of mitochondria at the relatively high spatial resolution of 90 nanometres. (See Video 1, which shows a time-lapse sequence recorded over nearly 7 minutes.)

      Over a few minutes the inner mitochondrial structure changed dramatically in a number of ways. Initially, elongation and increase in the number of cristae was seen. One image sequence (see Figure 2a) shows inner membranes of neighbouring mitochondria fusing together—in other words, two mitochondria fusing to make one. Another image sequence (see Figure 2b) shows two cristae within a single mitochondrion apparently fusing together. Elongation and creating more cristae is thought to increase the efficiency of energy production (ATP synthesis) while protecting the mitochondrium from "autophagosomal degradation"—a programmed death whose purpose is to remove unnecessary or dysfunctional components from the cell and allow the orderly degradation and recycling of cellular components.

      After the initial period of elongation, the inner membranes of some mitochondria split into globules that swelled and lost cristae (see Movie S2) some globules ruptured (Movie S4). Some formed concentric spheres (Figure 1 and Video 1). The fluorescence intensity remained the same. Noteworthy here is that the cristae and membranes remain as sharply imaged as before, which indicates that the cause of the mitochondrion's death is not toxicity due to degradation of the marker molecule under the beam. The extremely strong STED laser might have damaged the mitochondria, although exactly why they rupture is unknown.

      In these images, after seeing initial survival responses, we are watching the death of mitochondria under the intense STED beam. A future direction of research will be to reduce the intensity of the STED laser beam by creating a fluorescent marker molecule that glows when illuminated by light of a longer wavelength and therefore lower energy. The mitochondria might then live longer.

      However, even with MitoPB Yellow, the dying process—which is not well understood—can be studied. Nobody knows if the morphological (structural) changes observed during the dying process are related to apoptosis (normal, controlled death) or necrosis (death due to injury or malfunction). Apoptosis is known to be triggered by a signalling molecule called cytochrome C: if a reagent can be found that suppresses cytochrome C, then mitochondria—and human cells—could live longer.

      Being able to see the processes occurring inside mitochondria should lead to a better way of diagnosing human mitochondrial disease—and perhaps even to a cure.

      Mitochondria drive cell survival in times of need

      McGill University researchers have discovered a mechanism through which mitochondria, the energy factory of our body’s cells, play a role in preventing cells from dying when the cells are deprived of nutrients – a finding that points to a potential target for next-generation cancer drugs.

      The research, published in Molecular Cell, builds on previous work by McGill professor Nahum Sonenberg, one of the senior authors of the new study.

      Cells in our body grow in size, mass and numbers through a process governed by a master regulator known as mTOR (Mechanistic Target of Rapamycin). Sonenberg discovered years ago that mTOR also controls protein expression in all human cells. In particular, mTOR targets the selective synthesis of proteins destined for the mitochondria, the bacteria-like structures in all our cells that generate the energy needed for cells to grow and divide.

      In collaboration with the research labs of McGill scientists Heidi McBride and John Bergeron, Sonenberg and his team have now shown that mTOR also controls the expression of proteins that alter the structure and function of mitochondria -- thereby protecting cells from dying.

      Their work has implications for cancer therapy, since new drugs that act on mTOR are currently in clinical trials for cancer. While the treatments are effective in arresting the expansion and growth of cancer cells, the cells continue to survive, despite a shortage of nutrients. The new study reveals that mitochondria help keep these cells alive by fusing together and blocking a central point in a cell death pathway, called apoptosis.

      This advance offers clues to develop combination therapies that could promote cancer-cell death by reversing the protection offered by mitochondria, the researchers say.

      Two postdoctoral fellows from the Sonenberg and McBride labs, Masahiro Morita currently at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and Julien Prudent, currently at MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit in Cambridge, UK, led the collaborative team, working together to map the details of this cellular survival pathway.

      “mTOR Controls Mitochondrial Dynamics and Cell Survival via MTFP1,” Masahiro Morita, Julien Prudent, et al. Molecular Cell, Sept. 21, 2017
      DOI: 10.1016/j.molcel.2017.08.013

      Funding for the research was provided in part by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, the Terry Fox Research Institute, and the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.