Evolutionary defined role of the mitochondrial DNA in fertility, disease and ageing

Auke B. C. Otten, Hubert J. M. Smeets*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


BACKGROUND: The endosymbiosis of an alpha-proteobacterium and a eubacterium a billion years ago paved the way for multicellularity and enabled eukaryotes to flourish. The selective advantage for the host was the acquired ability to generate large amounts of intracellular hydrogen-dependent adenosine triphosphate. The price was increased reactive oxygen species (ROS) inside the eukaryotic cell, causing high mutation rates of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). According to the Muller's ratchet theory, this accumulation of mutations in asexually transmitted mtDNA would ultimately lead to reduced reproductive fitness and eventually extinction. However, mitochondria have persisted over the course of evolution, initially due to a rapid, extreme evolutionary reduction of the mtDNA content. After the phylogenetic divergence of eukaryotes into animals, fungi and plants, differences in evolution of the mtDNA occurred with different adaptations for coping with the mutation burden within these clades. As a result, mitochondrial evolutionary mechanisms have had a profound effect on human adaptation, fertility, healthy reproduction, mtDNA disease manifestation and transmission and ageing. An understanding of these mechanisms might elucidate novel approaches for treatment and prevention of mtDNA disease. METHODS: The scientific literature was investigated to determine how mtDNA evolved in animals, plants and fungi. Furthermore, the different mechanisms of mtDNA inheritance and of balancing Muller's ratchet in these species were summarized together with the consequences of these mechanisms for human health and reproduction. RESULTS: Animal, plant and fungal mtDNA have evolved differently. Animals have compact genomes, little recombination, a stable number of genes and a high mtDNA copy number, whereas plants have larger genomes with variable gene counts, a low mtDNA copy number and many recombination events. Fungal mtDNA is somewhere in between. In plants, the mtDNA mutation rate is kept low by effective ROS defence and efficient recombination-mediated mtDNA repair. In animal mtDNA, these mechanisms are not or less well-developed and the detrimental mutagenesis events are controlled by a high mtDNA copy number in combination with a genetic bottleneck and purifying selection during transmission. The mtDNA mutation rates in animals are higher than in plants, which allow mobile animals to adapt more rapidly to various environmental conditions in terms of energy production, whereas static plants do not have this need. Although at the level of the species, these mechanisms have been extremely successful, they can have adverse effects for the individual, resulting, in humans, in severe or unpredictably segregating mtDNA diseases, as well as fertility problems and unhealthy ageing. CONCLUSIONS: Understanding the forces and processes that underlie mtDNA evolution among different species increases our knowledge on the detrimental consequences that individuals can have from these evolutionary end-points. Alternative outcomes in animals, fungi and plants will lead to a better understanding of the inheritance of mtDNA disorders and mtDNA-related fertility problems. These will allow the development of options to ameliorate, cure and/or prevent mtDNA diseases and mtDNA-related fertility problems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)671-689
JournalHuman Reproduction Update
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • mitochondria
  • evolution
  • mitochondrial disease
  • reproduction
  • infertility

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