Long before the earliest animals swam through the water-covered surface of Earth’s ancient past, one of the most important encounters in the history of life took place. A primitive bacterium was engulfed by our oldest ancestor — a solo, free-floating cell. The two fused to form a mutually beneficial relationship that has lasted more than a billion years, with the latter providing a safe, comfortable home and the former becoming a powerhouse, fueling the processes necessary to maintain life.
That’s the best hypothesis to date for how the cellular components, or organelles, known as mitochondria came to be. Today, trillions of these bacterial descendants live within our bodies, churning out ATP, the molecular energy source that sustains our cells. Despite being inextricably integrated into the machinery of the human body, mitochondria also carry remnants of their bacterial past, such as their own set of DNA.
These features make mitochondria both a critical element of our cells and a potential source of problems. Like the DNA inside the nuclei of our cells that makes up the human genome, mitochondrial DNA can harbor mutations. Age, stress and other factors may disrupt mitochondria’s many functions. On top of that, mitochondrial injury can release molecules that, due to their similarities to those made by bacteria, can be mistaken by our immune system as foreign invaders, triggering a harmful inflammatory response against our own cells.
There is one organ that appears to be particularly vulnerable to mitochondrial damage: our power-hungry brains. [Continue reading…]