The incomplete natural history of mitochondria

Mol Ecol. 2004 Apr;13(4):729-44. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-294x.2003.02063.x.


Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has been used to study molecular ecology and phylogeography for 25 years. Much important information has been gained in this way, but it is time to reflect on the biology of the mitochondrion itself and consider opportunities for evolutionary studies of the organelle itself and its ecology, biochemistry and physiology. This review has four sections. First, we review aspects of the natural history of mitochondria and their DNA to show that it is a unique molecule with specific characteristics that differ from nuclear DNA. We do not attempt to cover the plethora of differences between mitochondrial and nuclear DNA; rather we spotlight differences that can cause significant bias when inferring demographic properties of populations and/or the evolutionary history of species. We focus on recombination, effective population size and mutation rate. Second, we explore some of the difficulties in interpreting phylogeographical data from mtDNA data alone and suggest a broader use of multiple nuclear markers. We argue that mtDNA is not a sufficient marker for phylogeographical studies if the focus of the investigation is the species and not the organelle. We focus on the potential bias caused by introgression. Third, we show that it is not safe to assume a priori that mtDNA evolves as a strictly neutral marker because both direct and indirect selection influence mitochondria. We outline some of the statistical tests of neutrality that can, and should, be applied to mtDNA sequence data prior to making any global statements concerning the history of the organism. We conclude with a critical examination of the neglected biology of mitochondria and point out several surprising gaps in the state of our knowledge about this important organelle. Here we limelight mitochondrial ecology, sexually antagonistic selection, life-history evolution including ageing and disease, and the evolution of mitochondrial inheritance.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Genetics, Population*
  • Geography
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Mitochondria / physiology*
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Phylogeny*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Selection, Genetic


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Reactive Oxygen Species