Is mitochondrial DNA content a potential biomarker of mitochondrial dysfunction?

Mitochondrion. 2013 Sep;13(5):481-92. doi: 10.1016/j.mito.2012.10.011. Epub 2012 Oct 22.


Mitochondrial dysfunction is central to numerous diseases of oxidative stress. Changes in mitochondrial DNA (MtDNA) content, often measured as mitochondrial genome to nuclear genome ratio (Mt/N) using real time quantitative PCR, have been reported in a broad range of human diseases, such as diabetes and its complications, obesity, cancer, HIV complications, and ageing. We propose the hypothesis that MtDNA content in body fluids and tissues could be a biomarker of mitochondrial dysfunction and review the evidence supporting this theory. Increased reactive oxygen species resulting from an external trigger such as hyperglycaemia or increased fat in conditions of oxidative stress could lead to enhanced mitochondrial biogenesis, and increased Mt/N. Altered MtDNA levels may contribute to enhanced oxidative stress and inflammation and could play a pathogenic role in mitochondrial dysfunction and disease. Changes in Mt/N are detectable in circulating cells such as peripheral blood mononuclear cells and these could be used as surrogate to predict global changes in tissues and organs. We review a large number of studies reporting changes in MtDNA levels in body fluids such as circulating blood cells, cell free serum, saliva, sperm, and cerebrospinal fluid as well as in tumour and normal tissue samples. However, the data are often conflicting as the current methodology used to measure Mt/N can give false results because of one or more of the following reasons (1) use of mitochondrial primers which co-amplify nuclear pseudogenes (2) use of nuclear genes which are variable and/or duplicated in numerous locations (3) a dilution bias caused by the differing genome sizes of the mitochondrial and nuclear genome and (4) template preparation protocols which affect the yields of nuclear and mitochondrial genomes. Development of robust and reproducible methodology is needed to test the hypothesis that MtDNA content in body fluids is biomarker of mitochondrial dysfunction.

Keywords: Biomarker; Mitochondrial DNA; Mt/N; MtDNA; OXPHOS; Oxidative stress; Pseudogenes; ROS; TFAM; mitochondrial DNA; mitochondrial genome to nuclear genome ratio; oxidative phosphorylation; qPCR; reactive oxygen species; real time quantitative polymerase chain reaction; transcription factor A.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers*
  • Cytological Techniques / methods*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / analysis*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / chemistry*
  • Mitochondria / genetics
  • Mitochondria / physiology*
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction


  • Biomarkers
  • DNA, Mitochondrial