Mitochondria are the major ATP producer of the mammalian cell. Moreover, mitochondria are also the main intracellular source and target of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that are continually generated as by-products of aerobic metabolism in human cells. A low level of ROS generated from the respiratory chain was recently proposed to take part in the signaling from mitochondria to the nucleus. Several structural characteristics of mitochondria and the mitochondrial genome enable them to sense and respond to extracellular and intracellular signals or stresses in order to sustain the life of the cell. It has been established that mitochondrial respiratory function declines with age, and that defects in the respiratory chain increase the production of ROS and free radicals in mitochondria. Within a certain concentration range, ROS may induce stress responses of the cell by altering the expression of a number of genes in order to uphold energy metabolism to rescue the cell. However, beyond this threshold, ROS may elicit apoptosis by induction of mitochondrial membrane permeability transition and release of cytochrome c. Intensive research in the past few years has established that mitochondria play a pivotal role in the early phase of apoptosis in mammalian cells. In this article, the role of mitochondria in the determination of life and death of the cell is reviewed on the basis of recent findings gathered from this and other laboratories.
Copyright 2000 National Science Council, ROC and S. Karger AG, Basel