MtDNA mutations in aging and apoptosis

Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2003 May 9;304(3):519-29. doi: 10.1016/s0006-291x(03)00625-9.


There is considerable evidence that the oxidative phosphorylation capacity of human mitochondria declines in various tissues with aging. However, the genetic basis of this phenomenon has not yet been clarified. The occurrence of large deletions in mtDNA from brain, skeletal, and heart muscles and other tissues of old subjects at relatively low levels has been well documented. We discuss their possible functional relevance for the aging processes. On the contrary, until very recently, only inconclusive and often discordant evidence was available for the accumulation of mtDNA point mutations in old individuals. In the past few years, however, an aging-dependent large accumulation of mtDNA point mutations has been demonstrated in the majority of individuals above a certain age. These mutations occur in the mtDNA main control region at critical sites for mtDNA replication in fibroblasts and skeletal muscles. The extraordinary tissue specificity and nucleotide selectivity of these mutations strongly support the idea of their being functionally relevant. Evidence in agreement with this conclusion has been provided by the very recent observation that an mtDNA mutation occurring in blood leukocytes near an origin of replication, which causes a remodeling of this origin, occurs at a strikingly higher frequency in centenarians and monozygotic and dizygotic twins than in the control populations, strongly pointing to its survival value. The present article reviews another area of active research and discussion, namely, the role of pathogenic mtDNA mutations in causing programmed cell death. The available evidence has clearly shown that mtDNA and respiration are not essential for the process of apoptosis. However, the limited and sometimes contradictory data indicate that the absence or impaired function of mtDNA can influence the rate of this process, most probably by regulating the production of reactive oxygen species or the lack thereof.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / genetics*
  • Apoptosis / genetics*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Longevity / genetics
  • Mutation*
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Point Mutation
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Sequence Deletion


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Reactive Oxygen Species