The underestimated role of the mitochondria

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The mitochondria are like the boiler room. Hardly anyone looks into it regularly. Nobody really knows what is going on in this corner of the house while the power plant is heating the apartment. The mitochondria are the “power plants of the cells” and supply every single cell in the body with energy. Covered by a membrane, they take up no more than a third of the cell interior and swim by dozens, if not thousands, in the cell fluid.

Tissues with high energy requirements such as the heart and brain contain more mitochondria than skin cells, for example. They even have their own genetic material: 37 genes house the small egg-shaped structures. Compared to the more than 20,000 genes in the cell nucleus, however, they are almost invisible to medical research – which mostly focuses on the cell nucleus.

“That is quite an underestimation of the importance of mitochondria in the life of a cell,” says Thomas Langer from the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging in Cologne. Mitochondria naturally supply all cells with energy in the form of the cellular fuel ATP, the adenosine triphosphate. But by no means only that. They provide raw materials from which proteins, lipids or new genetic material are created in the cell. Without the mitochondria, the production of substances in the cell ceases. They also control the calcium level, which also determines the life and death of a cell. In all of these tasks you have the role of a kind of base station in the cell. Without their command, the cell nucleus does nothing and, conversely, the mitochondria wait for an answer from the cell nucleus. If the mitochondria weaken, the cell nucleus simply puts down its energy-consuming production of complex proteins and other substances and also has no resources to adapt to stress of any kind.

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