Scientists Say: Mitochondrion

This structure produces energy for a cell


These two round structures are mitochondria from a mammal’s lung. The stripes inside are extra membrane surface area that helps them produce energy for their cell.

Louisa Howard/Wikimedia Commons

Mitochondrion, plural mitochondria (noun, “MITE-oh-CON-dree-on”, plural “MITE-oh-CON-dree-ah”)

These are structures inside cells that convert glucose, a type of sugar, into adenosine triphosphate or ATP. This molecule provides energy a cell can use for all its needs.

Most cells in your body, except red blood cells, have mitochondria. A single liver cell may have as many as 2,000. Unlike most other cellular structures, each mitochondrion has its own DNA — a molecular code that controls its function. This might be because mitochondria originated as free-living bacteria. At some point in the very distant past, one of those bacteria may have been gobbled up by a bigger cell. But it didn’t get digested. Instead, the mitochondrion may have produced energy that the bigger cell could use. It would have been the start of a beautiful relationship.

In a sentence

The DNA inside mitochondria can be used to figure out animal ancestry, such as when wolves turned into dogs.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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