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In cell biology, a mitochondrion (plural mitochondria) (from Greek mitos thread + khondrion granule) is an organelle, variants of which are found in most Eukaryotic cells. Mitochondria are sometimes described as "cellular power plants," because their primary function is to convert organic materials into energy in the form of ATP via the process of oxidative phosphorylation. Usually a cell has hundreds or thousands of mitochondria, which can occupy up to 25% of the cell's cytoplasm. Mitochondria usually have their own DNA (mtDNA); according to the generally accepted Endosymbiotic theory, they were originally derived from external organisms.


A mitochondrion contains outer and inner membranes composed of phospholipid bilayers studded with proteins, much like a typical cell membrane. The two membranes, however, have very different properties.

The outer mitochondrial membrane, which encloses the entire organelle, contains numerous integral proteins called porins, which contain a relatively large internal channel (about 2-3 nm) that is permeable to all molecules of 5000 daltons or less [Alberts, 1994]. Larger molecules can only tranverse the outer membrane by active transport. The outer mitochondrial membrane is composed of about 50% phospholipids by weight and contains a variety of enzymes involved in such diverse activities as the elongation of fatty acids, oxidation of epinephrine (adrenaline), and the degradation of tryptophan.

The inner membrane contains proteins with three types of functions [Alberts, 1994]:

  1. those that carry out the oxidation reactions of the respiratory chain
  2. ATP synthase, which makes ATP in the matrix
  3. specific transport proteins that regulate the passage of metabolites into and out of the matrix.

It contains more than 100 different polypeptides, and has a very high protein-to-phospholipid ratio (more than 3:1 by weight, which is about 1 protein for 15 phospholipids). Additionally, the inner membrane is rich in an unusual phospholipid, cardiolipin, which is usually characteristic of bacterial plasma membranes. Unlike the outer membrane, the inner membrane does not contain porins, and is highly-impermeable; almost all ions and molecules require special membrane transporters to enter or exit the matrix.

The mitochondrial matrix

The matrix is the space enclosed by the inner membrane. The matrix contains a highly concentrated mixture of hundreds of enzymes, in addition to the special mitochondrial ribosomes, tRNA, and several copies of the mitochondrial DNA genome. Of the enzymes, the major functions include oxidation of pyruvate and fatty acids, and the citric acid cycle. [Alberts, 1994]

Mitochondria structure :1) Inner membrane2) Outer membrane 3) Crista4) Matrix

Thus, mitochondria possess their own genetic material, and the machinery to manufacture their own RNAs and proteins. (See: protein synthesis). This nonchromosomal DNA encodes a small number of mitochondrial peptides (13 in humans) that are integrated into the inner mitochondrial membrane, along with polypeptides encoded by genes that reside in the host cell's nucleus.

The inner mitochondrial membrane is folded into numerous cristae (see diagram above), which expand the surface area of the inner mitochondrial membrane, enhancing its ability to generate ATP. In typical liver mitochondria, for example, the surface area, including cristae, is about five times that of the outer membrane. Mitochondria of cells which have greater demand for ATP, such as muscle cells, contain even more cristae than typical liver mitochondria.

Mitochondrial functions

Although the primary function of mitochondria is to convert organic materials into cellular energy in the form of ATP, mitochondria play an important role in many metabolic tasks, such as:

  • Apoptosis-Programmed cell death
  • Glutamate-mediated excitotoxic neuronal injury
  • Cellular proliferation
  • Regulation of the cellular redox state
  • Heme synthesis
  • Steroid synthesis
  • Heat production (enabling the organism to stay warm).

Some mitochondrial functions are performed only in specific types of cells. For example, mitochondria in liver cells contain enzymes that allow them to detoxify ammonia, a waste product of protein metabolism. A mutation in the genes regulating any of these functions can result in a variety of mitochondrial diseases.

Reproduction and gene inheritance

Mitochondria replicate their DNA and divide mainly in response to the energy needs of the cell; in other words their growth and division is not linked to the cell cycle. When the energy needs of a cell are high, mitochondria grow and divide. When the energy use is low, mitochondria are destroyed or become inactive. At cell division, mitochondria are distributed to the daughter cells more or less randomly during the division of the cytoplasm. Mitochondria divide by binary fission similar to bacterial cell division. Unlike bacteria, however, mitochondria can also fuse with other mitochondria. Sometimes new mitochondria are synthesized in centers that are rich in proteins and polyribosomes needed for their synthesis.

Mitochondrial genes are not inherited by the same mechanism as nuclear genes. At fertilization of an egg by a sperm, the egg nucleus and sperm nucleus each contribute equally to the genetic makeup of the zygote nucleus. In contrast, the mitochondria, and therefore the mitochondrial DNA, usually comes from the egg only. At fertilization of an egg, a single sperm enters the egg along with the mitochondria that it uses to provide the energy needed for its swimming behavior. However, the mitochondria provided by the sperm are targeted for destruction very soon after entry into the egg. The egg itself contains relatively few mitochondria, but it is these mitochondria that survive and divide to populate the cells of the adult organism. This means that mitochondria are usually inherited purely down the female line.