Mitochondria as a target of environmental toxicants

Toxicol Sci. 2013 Jul;134(1):1-17. doi: 10.1093/toxsci/kft102. Epub 2013 Apr 29.


Enormous strides have recently been made in our understanding of the biology and pathobiology of mitochondria. Many diseases have been identified as caused by mitochondrial dysfunction, and many pharmaceuticals have been identified as previously unrecognized mitochondrial toxicants. A much smaller but growing literature indicates that mitochondria are also targeted by environmental pollutants. We briefly review the importance of mitochondrial function and maintenance for health based on the genetics of mitochondrial diseases and the toxicities resulting from pharmaceutical exposure. We then discuss how the principles of mitochondrial vulnerability illustrated by those fields might apply to environmental contaminants, with particular attention to factors that may modulate vulnerability including genetic differences, epigenetic interactions, tissue characteristics, and developmental stage. Finally, we review the literature related to environmental mitochondrial toxicants, with a particular focus on those toxicants that target mitochondrial DNA. We conclude that the fields of environmental toxicology and environmental health should focus more strongly on mitochondria.

Keywords: contaminants; mitochondria; mitochondrial DNA; mitochondrial disease.; mitochondrial toxicity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Damage*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial* / genetics
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / drug effects*
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Mitochondria / pathology
  • Mitochondrial Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Mitochondrial Diseases / genetics
  • Mutagens / toxicity*


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Mutagens