Mitochondrial diseases result from failures of the mitochondria, specialized compartments present in every cell of the body (except red blood cells).
Mitochondria are responsible for creating more than 90% of the energy needed by the body to sustain life and support organ function. When they fail, less and less energy is generated within the cell. Cell injury and even cell death follow. If this process is repeated throughout the body, whole organ systems begin to fail.
The parts of the body, such as the heart, brain, muscles and lungs, requiring the greatest amounts of energy are the most affected. Mitochondrial disease is difficult to diagnose, because it affects each individual differently. Symptoms can include seizures, strokes, severe developmental delays, inability to walk, talk, see, and digest food combined with a host of other complications. If three or more organ systems are involved, mitochondrial disease should be suspected.
Although mitochondrial disease primarily affects children, adult onset is becoming more common.
Energy Factories and Much More
The conventional teaching in biology and medicine is that mitochondria function only as “energy factories” for the cell. This over-simplification is a mistake which has slowed our progress toward understanding the biology underlying mitochondrial disease. It takes about 3000 genes to make a mitochondrion. Mitochondrial DNA encodes just 37 of these genes; the remaining genes are encoded in the cell nucleus and the resultant proteins are transported to the mitochondria. Only about 3% of the genes necessary to make a mitochondrion (100 of the 3000) are allocated for making ATP. More than 95% (2900 of 3000) are involved with other functions tied to the specialized duties of the differentiated cell in which it resides. These duties change as we develop from embryo to adult, and our tissues grow, mature, and adapt to the postnatal environment. These other, non-ATP-related functions are intimately involved with most of the major metabolic pathways used by a cell to build, break down, and recycle its molecular building blocks. Cells cannot even make the RNA and DNA they need to grow and function without mitochondria. The building blocks of RNA and DNA are purines and pyrimidines. Mitochondria contain the rate-limiting enzymes for pyrimidine biosynthesis (dihydroorotate dehydrogenase) and heme synthesis (d-amino levulinic acid synthetase) required to make hemoglobin. In the liver, mitochondria are specialized to detoxify ammonia in the urea cycle. Mitochondria are also required for cholesterol metabolism, for estrogen and testosterone synthesis, for neurotransmitter metabolism, and for free radical production and detoxification. They do all this in addition to breaking down (oxidizing) the fat, protein, and carbohydrates we eat and drink.