Scientists have discovered a link between mitochondria and stress

Mitochondria are membrane bound organelles found in our cells. They are instrumental in ensuring that organisms stay alive and produce the body’s main energy currency in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Without ATP we would literally cease to function, hence why mitochondria are commonly referred to as the ‘powerhouse’ of our cells and as such, play an important role in many biological processes. The brain requires 20% of the body’s energy output, highlighting the importance of mitochondria. Mitochondria also contain their own DNA, which encode a number of important genes and proteins. Given the nature of mitochondria in the body, it is an important structure to study in terms of certain diseases and how to either treat or prevent them.

A recent study has found that fluctuations in mitochondria function and DNA could be responsible for stress-induced physiological changes in hormonal, metabolic and behavioural systems. Douglas C. Wallace, Ph.D, director of the Center for Mitochondrial and Epigenomic Medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia stated that, “Our findings suggest that relatively mild alterations in mitochondrial genes, and hence mitochondrial physiology, have large effects on how mammals respond to stressful changes in their environment.”

Using mice as models, Wallace and his team were able to show that mutations in mitochondrial or nuclear DNA caused whole body stress response signatures. They restrained the mice for a short period of time after which they tested and measured the impact of the confinement on the neuroendocrine, inflammatory, metabolic and gene transcription systems. Each specific mitochondrial defect was found to generate a specific body stress-response signature. This was determined by patterns in physiology and gene expression. Constant activation of these stress responses can have a negative impact on humans and decrease quality of life. Therefore, this discovery is important because mitochondria are often implicated in diabetes, neurodegenerative and neuromuscular diseases, as well as age-related conditions.

Wallace and his colleagues noted that, “Scientists have long known that stressful experiences, on their own, do not cause disease; it’s our responses to stress that have the potential to culminate in disease” indicating that finding a viable treatment for these diseases lies in determining how to prevent changes in mitochondrial DNA, as well as understanding how they arise in the first place.


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Sikemi Alli

Biomedical Sciences student with an interest in pharmacology, haematology, science publishing and ongoing research in oncology.

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