Mitochondria are oval-shaped organelles that power our cells. They carry out cellular respiration and also convert light energy into chemical energy for the cell, called ATP.
Plants are particularly dependent on mitochondria for generating energy, because they can’t produce it by themselves. They need chloroplasts as well, which are specialized organelles that carry out photosynthesis, in which light is converted into sugar for the plant cell to use.
What are they?
Plants have two important organelles, mitochondria and chloroplasts. Chloroplasts collect energy from sunlight and produce sugars that are used by the plants and other organisms that eat them, such as humans.
Mitochondria, on the other hand, use energy to carry out cellular processes and degrade certain compounds. They also produce ATP and can carry out other metabolic activities.
In addition, they are highly specialized and have their own genetic system. They evolve through endosymbiosis, replicate by division, and have their own ribosomes to make their own proteins.
The mitochondrial genome is usually a circular 16 kb chromosome. It encodes 37 genes and is highly conserved across taxa. However, it can vary in location. In some species, the genes are arranged in minicircular chromosomes, such as those found in parasitic mistletoe and the body louse (Pediculus humanus).
These tiny organelles contain their own DNA and ribosomes. They are very different from the cellular DNA that is produced by the nucleus.
Unlike the nuclear DNA, which codes for all proteins in a cell, the mitochondrial DNA only contains a few key genes that are critical to mitochondrial function. These are the genes for the core set of proteins involved in oxidative phosphorylation and photosynthesis.
This allows the cell to locally regulate its mitochondrial function. In this way, the cell can quickly correct any mitochondria that may be out of balance, instead of having to make large-scale changes across hundreds or thousands of mitochondria.
One of the reasons this is so important is because it provides plants with a constant source of pyruvate, which is needed for energy production. There are three pathways that can supply pyruvate to the mitochondria. The first pathway is called MPC, which can directly import pyruvate from the cytosol. Another pathway can convert pyruvate to alanine, and the third can generate pyruvate internally from malate.
Besides the core mitochondrial genes, there are many other proteins that help the organelles carry out their functions. For example, the mitochondrion uses a protein called ATAD3 to signal to other cells when it is in danger. This protein can send signals to the nucleus to trigger a response.
How do they work?
There are two major organelles that cells use to get energy, and they’re called mitochondria and chloroplasts. Both have unique functions, but they’re both essential for normal cellular function.
Mitochondria are found in almost all eukaryotic cells (cells that have clearly defined nuclei), and they’re responsible for generating large amounts of energy in the form of ATP. They also store calcium for cell signaling activities, generate heat and mediate the synthesis of proteins.
The outer membrane of mitochondria is permeable to small molecules and allows for chemical transport from the cytosol into the central mass, which contains the DNA of the mitochondrion and a series of enzymes that metabolize nutrients into by-products that the organelles can use for energy production. The inner mitochondrial membrane is less permeable and encloses a space where the organelles can exchange oxygen for glucose.
Because plants are photosynthetic, they need to capture light energy in order to make sugars that can be used for cellular respiration. The resulting organic molecules are broken down in the mitochondria to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which enables the synthesis of other important macromolecules.
While the number and structure of mitochondria vary greatly among different tissues and organs, their functional activity remains largely unchanged. This has led scientists to suspect that mitochondria change in shape, size and number depending on a variety of internal and external stimuli (Segui-Simarro and Staehelin, 2009).
Some evidence supports this hypothesis. For example, studies of isolated mitochondrion in palisade mesophyll cells demonstrated that mitochondria move in coordination with chloroplasts under different light regimes. These movements were associated with changes in the abundance of the major oxidative phosphorylation complexes that regulate ATP production and energy storage.
Another piece of evidence for the link between mitochondrial dynamics and function comes from the observation that several nuclear-encoded proteins are dual localized to either mitochondria or chloroplasts, allowing cells to flexibly adapt their biogenesis according to the energy needs of the cell. These nuclear-encoded proteins may be regulated by retrograde signals that originate inside the mitochondria and then cross the outer mitochondrial membrane into the cytosol.
Why do they need them?
Plants are known for their ability to convert sunlight into sugar via a process called photosynthesis. The two cell organelles — the chloroplast and the mitochondria — are essential for this process.
Aside from their role in cellular respiration, the organelles also play an important role in signaling between different cells and tissues. For instance, mitochondria have been shown to produce a chemical that triggers peptide signals that can send messages to other parts of the cell, including the nucleus.
In addition, researchers have discovered that the number and efficiency of mitochondria can affect the brain. In mice with high levels of anxiety, for example, scientists found that the organelles were less adept at producing ATP than in animals that exhibited lower levels of stress.
Because these organelles contain their own DNA, they can be prone to malfunctioning or missing parts of their code. That can cause a variety of diseases, including Parkinson’s, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Many of these disorders are linked to abnormalities in the mitochondrial genome. Mitochondria have shrinked in size over time, so most of their genes now reside in the cell’s nucleus, rather than in the organelles themselves.
Scientists have argued about why this has happened. One idea is that mitochondria evolved from ancient oxygen-using bacteria that were engulfed by larger cells, and remained living in the hosts. In other words, they were “endosymbionts.”
Another theory, which is more popular in scientific circles, is that mitochondria were formed when bacteria that needed energy-using oxygen accidentally merged with cells that did not. In this scenario, the bacteria’s DNA was “absorbed” by the eukaryotic cells, triggering the organelles to develop.
Regardless of the cause, researchers are increasingly linking defective mitochondria to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They’re also beginning to show that inflammation caused by the release of the organelles’ DNA may play a key role in these diseases.
But before researchers can begin developing treatments for these diseases, they need to better understand how mitochondria function and why they’re so important. That’s because the organelles’ efficiency can be influenced by a person’s diet and lifestyle choices. If people consume too much sugar, for example, it can reduce the overall efficiency of the organelles and increase their likelihood of leaking free radicals into the cell.
What are their functions?
Mitochondria are organelles found in eukaryotic (cells with clearly defined nuclei) cells and play important roles in cellular metabolism. They produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of the cell, and they help remove old cells and free radicals from the body.
They are a type of membrane-bound organelle that contains a number of compartments, or regions, that carry out specialized functions within the cell. These include the outer membrane, intermembrane space, inner membrane, cristae, and matrix (space within the inner membrane).
The outer mitochondrial membrane is a layer of proteinaceous lipids and other molecules that separates the cell from its environment. The outer membrane also protects the cell from outside threats, such as heat and chemicals.
In contrast, the inner membrane is composed of a dense network of proteins and amino acids that line the mitochondrial interior. These proteins and other molecules are involved in a process called chemiosmosis, which allows the flow of electrons from one side of the inner membrane to the other. This enables the electron transport chain to convert ATP, NADH, and FADH2 into the 3 main products of respiration: oxygen, acetyl-CoA, and carbon dioxide.
A small amount of ATP is produced in the inner mitochondrial membrane by breaking down sugar in the presence of oxygen or without it by using nitrite. The ATP is then transported across the outer membrane by a protein complex known as porins.
Another important function of the inner membrane is to form invaginations, or cristae, that extend deeply into the matrix. These cristae are the sites of biological energy conversion in all non-photosynthetic eukaryotes.
These cristae contain a complex set of proteins called the respiratory chain, which includes ribosomes and the enzymes needed for the citric acid cycle and DNA replication. They also contain a large amount of the electron carrier protein cytochrome c, which is responsible for oxidative phosphorylation and releasing the energy stored in ATP into the cell.
Mitochondria have long been recognized as critical metabolic organelles that make a major contribution to the health and function of a cell. They help control calcium levels in the cells and activate biochemical pathways in response to cell needs, such as when a muscle cell is generating energy, and they are involved in apoptosis, the highly controlled process of programmed cell death.