Why mitochondrial genes are most often found in nuclei

Mol Biol Evol. 2000 Jun;17(6):951-61. doi: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.molbev.a026376.


A very small fraction of the proteins required for the propagation and function of mitochondria are coded by their genomes, while nuclear genes code the vast majority. We studied the migration of genes between the two genomes when transfer mechanisms mediate this exchange. We could calculate the influence of differential mutation rates, as well as that of biased transfer rates, on the partitioning of genes between the two genomes. We observe no significant difference in partitioning for haploid and diploid cell populations, but the effective size of cell populations is important. For infinitely large effective populations, higher mutation rates in mitochondria than in nuclear genomes are required to drive mitochondrial genes to the nuclear genome. In the more realistic case of finite populations, gene transfer favoring the nucleus and/or higher mutation rates in the mitochondrion will drive mitochondrial genes to the nucleus. We summarize experimental data that identify a gene transfer process mediated by vacuoles that favors the accumulation of mitochondrial genes in the nuclei of modern cells. Finally, we compare the behavior of mitochondrial genes for which transfer to the nucleus is neutral or influenced by purifying selection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Nucleus / genetics*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Gene Transfer Techniques
  • Haploidy
  • Mitochondria / genetics*
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Models, Statistical
  • Mutation
  • Population Density
  • Selection, Genetic


  • DNA, Mitochondrial