Ultra-sensitive sequencing reveals an age-related increase in somatic mitochondrial mutations that are inconsistent with oxidative damage

PLoS Genet. 2013;9(9):e1003794. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003794. Epub 2013 Sep 26.


Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is believed to be highly vulnerable to age-associated damage and mutagenesis by reactive oxygen species (ROS). However, somatic mtDNA mutations have historically been difficult to study because of technical limitations in accurately quantifying rare mtDNA mutations. We have applied the highly sensitive Duplex Sequencing methodology, which can detect a single mutation among >10(7) wild type molecules, to sequence mtDNA purified from human brain tissue from both young and old individuals with unprecedented accuracy. We find that the frequency of point mutations increases ~5-fold over the course of 80 years of life. Overall, the mutation spectra of both groups are comprised predominantly of transition mutations, consistent with misincorporation by DNA polymerase γ or deamination of cytidine and adenosine as the primary mutagenic events in mtDNA. Surprisingly, G → T mutations, considered the hallmark of oxidative damage to DNA, do not significantly increase with age. We observe a non-uniform, age-independent distribution of mutations in mtDNA, with the D-loop exhibiting a significantly higher mutation frequency than the rest of the genome. The coding regions, but not the D-loop, exhibit a pronounced asymmetric accumulation of mutations between the two strands, with G → A and T → C mutations occurring more often on the light strand than the heavy strand. The patterns and biases we observe in our data closely mirror the mutational spectrum which has been reported in studies of human populations and closely related species. Overall our results argue against oxidative damage being a major driver of aging and suggest that replication errors by DNA polymerase γ and/or spontaneous base hydrolysis are responsible for the bulk of accumulating point mutations in mtDNA.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / genetics*
  • Aging / physiology
  • Autopsy
  • Brain / metabolism
  • DNA Damage
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / physiology
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing / methods
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Mitochondria / genetics
  • Mitochondria / pathology
  • Mutagenesis
  • Mutation*
  • Oxidative Stress / genetics*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Reactive Oxygen Species