Mitochondria are little, bean shaped organelles inside you cells that are responsible for making the majority of the energy used by your cells.
This often earns them the nickname “powerhouse of the cell”; however mitochondria perform many other important functions like:
- Helping control cell growth
- Helping cells and stem cells grow into the right type of cell (differentiation)
- Helping cells to communicate with other parts of the cell or with other cells
- Ensuring that when cells have to die, they do so in a clean, organized process called apoptosis
The amount of mitochondria within a cell can vary widely depending on that cells function. Typically, cells that need lots of energy, like liver cells, have lots of mitochondria while cells that need little energy, like red blood cells, have little or none.
Mitochondria have their own DNA that is separate from the DNA found in the nucleus. This DNA is important in making proteins that help the mitochondria make energy. There are a number of diseases associated with dysfunction in the mitochondria or it’s DNA. These diseases often manifest themselves as neurological disorders. Mitochondrial problems have been associated with many different diseases. You inherit the majority of your mitochondria from your mother during fertilization of the egg and as such these disorders are passed on from mother to child. There are currently trials trying to replace damaged mitochondria with healthy mitochondria from a donor to prevent some these disorders, although it isn’t without controversy.
One of the most interesting things about mitochondria is their resemblance to bacteria. There is plenty of evidence that they were once single celled bacteria that evolved to live in harmony with eukaryotic cells (defined here) and provide those cells with the energy they needed in return for access to nutrients.