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What are mitochondria in the body?

Mitochondria are often referred to as the powerhouses of the cell. They help turn the energy we take from food into energy that the cell can use. But, there is more to mitochondria than energy production.
Present in nearly all types of human cell, mitochondria are vital to our survival. They generate the majority of our adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of the cell.

Mitochondria are also involved in other tasks, such as signaling between cells and cell death, otherwise known as apoptosis.

In this article, we will look at how mitochondria work, what they look like, and explain what happens when they stop doing their job correctly.

The structure of mitochondria

Mitochondria are small, often between 0.75 and 3 micrometers and are not visible under the microscope unless they are stained.

Unlike other organelles (miniature organs within the cell), they have two membranes, an outer one and an inner one. Each membrane has different functions.

Mitochondria are split into different compartments or regions, each of which carries out distinct roles.

Some of the major regions include the:

Outer membrane: Small molecules can pass freely through the outer membrane. This outer portion includes proteins called porins, which form channels that allow proteins to cross. The outer membrane also hosts a number of enzymes with a wide variety of functions.

Intermembrane space: This is the area between the inner and outer membranes.

Inner membrane: This membrane holds proteins that have several roles. Because there are no porins in the inner membrane, it is impermeable to most molecules. Molecules can only cross the inner membrane in special membrane transporters. The inner membrane is where most ATP is created.

Cristae: These are the folds of the inner membrane. They increase the surface area of the membrane, therefore increasing the space available for chemical reactions.

Matrix: This is the space within the inner membrane. Containing hundreds of enzymes, it is important in the production of ATP. Mitochondrial DNA is housed here (see below).

Different cell types have different numbers of mitochondria. For instance, mature red blood cells have none at all, whereas liver cells can have more than 2,000. Cells with a high demand for energy tend to have greater numbers of mitochondria. Around 40 percent of the cytoplasm in heart muscle cells is taken up by mitochondria.

Although mitochondria are often drawn as oval-shaped organelles, they are constantly dividing (fission) and bonding together (fusion). So, in reality, these organelles are linked together in ever-changing networks.

Also, in sperm cells, the mitochondria are spiraled in the midpiece and provide energy for tail motion.

Mitochondrial DNA
Although most of our DNA is kept in the nucleus of each cell, mitochondria have their own set of DNA. Interestingly, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is more similar to bacterial DNA.

The mtDNA holds the instructions for a number of proteins and other cellular support equipment across 37 genes.

The human genome stored in the nuclei of our cells contains around 3.3 billion base pairs, whereas mtDNA consists of less than 17,000.

During reproduction, half of a child's DNA comes from their father and half from their mother. However, the child always receives their mtDNA from their mother. Because of this, mtDNA has proven very useful for tracing genetic lines.

For instance, mtDNA analyses have concluded that humans may have originated in Africa relatively recently, around 200,000 years ago, descended from a common ancestor, known as mitochondrial Eve.


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