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The term might sound vaguely familiar to you from cell biology classes in school, but do you remember – what does the mitochondria do? Why are the mitochondria so important?
For one, we can’t live without them. We need them for the normal functioning of cellular processes. But let’s take a short lesson in cell biology and see why.
The mitochondria are organelles – one of the building blocks of the cells. The organelles – as their name suggests – are the cell’s equivalents to organs. There are several kinds in a cell, and each one serves a specific purpose.
What makes mitochondria different from the other organelles are their membranes. Most organelles have a membrane (although there are some non-membrane-bound cell organelles too), but the mitochondria have a double membrane – an inner membrane and an outer membrane. They also carry genetic material inside them – they contain small amounts of their own DNA. Mitochondria have their own genome, called mitochondrial DNA.
You’ll hear everywhere that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. The reason for that is that the main purpose of the mitochondria is energy production. Mitochondria produce energy that the cell needs for its biochemical reactions and store it in small molecules called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This satisfies the energy demand of different cells. If you manage to boost ATP energy, you can energize more cells.
Humans have so-called eukaryotic cells, which means that our cells contain membrane-bound structures – like the two membranes in the mitochondria. This is one of the things that differentiates our cells from those of single celled organisms.
Almost all cells in the body contain at least a single mitochondrion, but most cells have more mitochondria – usually several hundred thousand in each cell. However, there are some cells that lack mitochondria, like red blood cells. Many single celled organisms also lack mitochondria.
To understand what the mitochondria do, we must understand what mitochondria look like.
The double membrane structure of the mitochondria plays an important role in its structure and function. The mitochondria have an outer membrane which serves as a barrier between it and the rest of the cell.
The space between mitochondrial membranes plays an important role in energy production and transfer. This is where several types of protein complex harness energy through a process called oxidative phosphorylation.
The inner membrane contains copies of a protein complex called ATP synthase as well as complexes of the electron transport chain – protein chains which play a role in energy production. The inner mitochondrial membrane also separates the intermembrane space from the matrix space.
The mitochondria constantly engage in mitochondrial division and fusion and are interlink into a network.
The inner membrane is much more selective than the outer mitochondrial membrane. This means that the outer mitochondrial membrane allows many ions and molecules to pass through. The outer membrane completely envelopes the inner membrane. While the outer membrane separates the mitochondria from the surrounding fluid that fills the cell, the inner membrane protects the inner core – the mitochondrial matrix. The inner membrane is full of proteins. These proteins from the inner membrane play a part in ATP synthesis and form the electron transport chain.
The mitochondrial matrix is the space within the inner mitochondrial membrane. While the outer mitochondrial membrane is smooth, the inner mitochondrial membrane has a large surface due to its folds. The most important thing that happens in the matrix space is a series of metabolic processes which include the breakdown of sugar, cellular respiration, and storage of energy.
Mitochondria play a crucial role in energy production in eukaryotic cells. Different mitochondrial proteins are parts of many cell cycles.
The mitochondria break down glucose and, using a protein called ATP synthase and respiratory chain protein, turn it into small molecules called adenosine triphosphate in the process of ATP synthesis.
Another thing that happens during this process is cell respiration because it uses oxygen to convert foodstuff molecules into energy while discarding carbon dioxide and water as waste.
The mitochondria are also an important player in programmed cell death. This process protects our health and is part of our natural immune system.
The third task of the mitochondria is to absorb and store calcium which we need for multiple processes in order for our bodies to function normally.
Apart from these main roles, the mitochondria play part in heat production and other cell cycle processes.
The citric acid cycle, or the Krebs cycle, is a metabolic pathway that plays an important role in energy production within eukaryotic cells. It is one of the most important processes of cell biology.
The Krebs cycle is one of the processes triggered by the electron transport chain. The other processes of the electron transport chain include the breakdown of glucose, oxidation, and oxidative phosphorylation.
In the simplest terms, when our cells need energy, carbohydrates and fats travel through the mitochondrial membranes and into the mitochondria. There, within the double membrane, they transform into energy in the process of ATP production. This entire chain of processes uses carbohydrates and oxygen while releasing water and carbon dioxide. That is why the citric acid cycle is sometimes referred to as cellular breathing.
The energy stored in the chemical bonds of the final product – ATP – is ready to be used by the cell. The citric acid cycle is the central part of this entire metabolic process.
ATP synthesis and Oxidative phosphorylation take place past the outer membrane and the intermembrane space, on the folds of the inner membrane. There, we can find the electron transport chain – a group of protein which transfer electrons through the inner membrane. They also transfer protons in the opposite direction – through the inner membrane and into the intermembrane space. In this way, the electron transport chain provides the energy necessary for oxidative phosphorylation and ATP production. This satisfies the cell’s energy demand.
Adenosine triphosphate is sometimes also called the energy currency of the cell. It provides the energy needed for our metabolic processes. We already get that energy from food in the form of carbohydrates and fats, but adenosine triphosphate stores it in a form our cells are able to use, namely – chemical bonds. When the cell needs to use energy, the chemical bonds of adenosine triphosphate molecules are broken, and the energy is released.
Cell death might sound bad, but it’s actually a good thing. When cells reach the end of their life – for instance when they get damaged or old, they are destroyed. This is a natural process which protects us from harmful mutations and many diseases, including cancer.
When cells grow old or get damaged due to, for instance, free electrons or fatty acids, that triggers the intrinsic pathway of programmed cell death. The mitochondria release a chemical called cytochrome c through the mitochondrial membranes, and into the fluid that fills the cell. Cytochrome c then triggers the process of cell death.
In a human cell, only two organelles contain genetic material – the nucleus and the mitochondria. The nuclear genome is what we normally think of when we think of DNA. But the mitochondria have their own, mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial genes are genetic material located in the mitochondrial matrix. The human mitochondrial genome is inherited only from the mother, which makes it especially efficient for tracing heritage but also brings the possibility of hereditary mitochondrial diseases.
The mitochondrial genome consists of 37 mitochondrial genes. They are different from the nuclear genome and, unlike nuclear genes, contain all of the necessary information a protein complex and RNA molecules need to synthesize proteins and bind amino acids, as well as for the oxidative phosphorylation process and energy production.
Because free electrons often find their way into the mitochondria by mistake, a lot of reactive oxygen species get produced on the inner mitochondrial membrane. Although there are many antioxidants that hunt these reactive oxygen species, some still slip through and can cause damage and mutations to the genetic material. Poor regulations of fatty acids can also pose a problem.
Mitochondrial mutations are visible in mitochondrial genome sequencing.
Mitochondrial DNA damage can cause mitochondrial diseases. These are usually genetic diseases that happen when more energy is necessary in the cell than mitochondria produce. Simply put, due to mutations, the mitochondrial genome stops doing its job, which is to synthesize proteins needed to create ATP through oxidative phosphorylation.
When a person is born with these mutations in the mitochondrial genome, a disease can appear at any stage of life and can affect almost any part of the body. Although the mitochondrial genome is inherited from the mother, these diseases can be inherited from both parents. This is because certain mutations that affect the mitochondria can also occur in nuclear genes.
Symptoms vary in intensity but can include fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, vision or hearing problems, liver, kidney or heart disease, diabetes, neurological disorders, and a whole host of other conditions.
The onset of the disease often happens due to factors such as drugs, smoking, exposure to chemicals, or stress.
Unlike mitochondrial diseases, which are caused by hereditary mutations in the mitochondrial genome, mitochondrial dysfunction occurs when the mitochondria don’t do their job properly due to other conditions or diseases – such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, or cancer. Environmental factors and unhealthy lifestyles can also lead to mitochondrial dysfunction.
Mitochondrial dysfunction arises when one or more of these things occur:
As research into aging progresses, more and more substantial links between the aging process and mitochondria emerge. During ATP synthesis, free radicals are formed in the mitochondria as a byproduct. These harmful chemicals cause oxidative damage to the cells, which leads to their slow and steady decline. Scientists propose that this, in turn, causes people to age.
Is it even possible to affect the health of such a tiny part of your body as the mitochondria? They function on such a basic, cell level that it might seem impossible. However, that is not true.
Your way of life definitely affects the state of your mitochondria. You can provide proper support for your cells and your mitochondria through a healthy diet that is rich in quality proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, and amino acids.
Exercise also helps, because it helps increase your oxygen intake.
Another important pathway to strengthen your mitochondria is red light therapy.
Photobiomodulation is a simple way to boost your mitochondria.
But how does red light affect your body on a cellular level? Research has shown that the electron transport chain is sensitive to red and near-infrared light. The mitochondria react to red and near-infrared light by increasing ATP synthesis. This results in higher levels of energy for the processes in the body.
However, that is not all. Red light therapy also plays a role in so-called reduction-oxidation signaling. Redox signaling comes from the mitochondria and plays a crucial role in managing oxidative stress and getting rid of free radicals in a cell.
In this way, red light therapy can help maintain ideal cell balance. This is important because it can be helpful in the reduction of your risk for many conditions caused by free radicals, including tumors.
A portable red light device is easy to use and treatments do not take up much time. A simple daily treatment can make a huge difference for your overall well-being, while also providing powerful support for your mitochondria.