A critical reassessment of the role of mitochondria in tumorigenesis

PLoS Med. 2005 Nov;2(11):e296. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0020296. Epub 2005 Oct 4.


Background: Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is being analyzed by an increasing number of laboratories in order to investigate its potential role as an active marker of tumorigenesis in various types of cancer. Here we question the conclusions drawn in most of these investigations, especially those published in high-rank cancer research journals, under the evidence that a significant number of these medical mtDNA studies are based on obviously flawed sequencing results.

Methods and findings: In our analyses, we take a phylogenetic approach and employ thorough database searches, which together have proven successful for detecting erroneous sequences in the fields of human population genetics and forensics. Apart from conceptual problems concerning the interpretation of mtDNA variation in tumorigenesis, in most cases, blocks of seemingly somatic mutations clearly point to contamination or sample mix-up and, therefore, have nothing to do with tumorigenesis.

Conclusion: The role of mitochondria in tumorigenesis remains unclarified. Our findings of laboratory errors in many contributions would represent only the tip of the iceberg since most published studies do not provide the raw sequence data for inspection, thus hindering a posteriori evaluation of the results. There is no precedent for such a concatenation of errors and misconceptions affecting a whole subfield of medical research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Artifacts
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics*
  • DNA Mutational Analysis
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / metabolism
  • Databases, Nucleic Acid
  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Genetics, Medical
  • Haplotypes
  • Humans
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Phylogeny
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • DNA, Mitochondrial