Eukaryotic cells are characterized by their content of intracellular membrane-bound organelles, including mitochondria as well as nuclei. These two DNA-containing compartments employ two distinct strategies for storage and readout of genetic information. The diploid nuclei of human cells contain about 6 billion base pairs encoding about 25,000 protein-encoding genes, averaging 120 kB/gene, packaged in chromatin arranged as a regular nucleosomal array. In contrast, human cells contain hundreds to thousands of copies of a ca.16 kB mtDNA genome tightly packed with 13 protein-coding genes along with rRNA and tRNA genes required for their expression. The mtDNAs are dispersed throughout the mitochondrial network as histone-free nucleoids containing single copies or small clusters of genomes. This review will summarize recent advances in understanding the microscopic structure and molecular composition of mtDNA nucleoids in higher eukaryotes. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Mitochondrial Gene Expression.
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