Mitochondrial Diseases in Humans
Haskett, Dorothy R.
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Mitochondrial diseases in humans result when the small organelles called mitochondria, which exist in all human cells, fail to function normally. The mitochondria contain their own mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) separate from the cell's nuclear DNA (nDNA). The main function of mitochondria is to produce energy for the cell. They also function in a diverse set of mechanisms such as calcium hemostasis, cell signaling, regulation of programmed cell death (apoptosis), and biosynthesis of heme proteins that carry oxygen. When mitochondria fail to fulfill those functions properly in the cell, many different maladies, including death, can occur. Humans inherit mitochondria from the mother through the egg cell, and all the mtDNA molecules in a person are identical to each other. But the mutation rate is much higher in the mtDNA than in nuclear DNA, and some individuals may have more than one type of mtDNA. As egg cells develop, they divide via a process called meiosis. As egg cells divide, mitochondria of different types can randomly segregate in some new cells but not in others. As a result, two offspring from the same female might differ in their types of mitochondria. Random amounts of the two mitochondria types can lead to some offspring inheriting a mitochondrial disease or developmental abnormalities while others are normal.