Primary and secondary defects of the mitochondrial respiratory chain

J Inherit Metab Dis. 2002 May;25(3):207-14. doi: 10.1023/a:1015629912477.


Over 100 mutations of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) have been associated with human disease. The phenotypic manifestation of mtDNA mutations is extremely broad, from oligosymptomatic patients with isolated deafness, diabetes, ophthalmoplegia, etc., to complex encephalomyopathic disorders that may include dementia, seizures, ataxia, stroke-like episodes, etc. The genotype variants are also wide, with rearrangements (deletions, duplications) and point mutations affecting protein coding genes, tRNAs and rRNAs. There are some broad genotype/phenotype correlations but also substantial overlap. The pathogenetic mechanisms involved in the expression of mtDNA mutations are still not yet fully understood. More recently, mutations of nuclear genes encoding subunits of the respiratory chain, particularly those of complex I, have been identified. These predominantly, but not exclusively, involve infant onset disease with early death. Recently it has become clear that the function of the respiratory chain may be impaired by mutations affecting other mitochondrial proteins or as a secondary phenomenon to other intracellular biochemical derangements. Examples include Friedreich ataxia where a mutation of a nuclear encoded protein (frataxin), probably involved in iron homeostasis in mitochondria, results in severe deficiency of the respiratory chain in a pattern indicative of free radical mediated damage. Mutations of nuclear encoded proteins involved in cytochrome oxidase assembly and maintenance have been characterised and, as predicted, are associated with severe deficiency of cytochrome oxidase and, most frequently, Leigh syndrome. Defects of intracellular metabolism, with particularly excess-free radical generation including nitric oxide or peroxynitrite, may cause secondary damage to the respiratory chain. This is probably of relevance in Huntington disease, motor neuron disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and Wilson disease. These disorders seem to have defective oxidative phosphorylation as a common pathway in their pathogenesis and it may be that treatments designed to improve respiratory chain function may ameliorate the progression of these disorders.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / biosynthesis
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Electron Transport*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / metabolism*
  • Mutation
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / genetics
  • RNA, Transfer / genetics


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • RNA, Transfer