Mathematical modeling of the role of mitochondrial fusion and fission in mitochondrial DNA maintenance

PLoS One. 2013 Oct 11;8(10):e76230. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0076230. eCollection 2013.


Accumulation of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations has been implicated in a wide range of human pathologies, including neurodegenerative diseases, sarcopenia, and the aging process itself. In cells, mtDNA molecules are constantly turned over (i.e. replicated and degraded) and are also exchanged among mitochondria during the fusion and fission of these organelles. While the expansion of a mutant mtDNA population is believed to occur by random segregation of these molecules during turnover, the role of mitochondrial fusion-fission in this context is currently not well understood. In this study, an in silico modeling approach is taken to investigate the effects of mitochondrial fusion and fission dynamics on mutant mtDNA accumulation. Here we report model simulations suggesting that when mitochondrial fusion-fission rate is low, the slow mtDNA mixing can lead to an uneven distribution of mutant mtDNA among mitochondria in between two mitochondrial autophagic events leading to more stochasticity in the outcomes from a single random autophagic event. Consequently, slower mitochondrial fusion-fission results in higher variability in the mtDNA mutation burden among cells in a tissue over time, and mtDNA mutations have a higher propensity to clonally expand due to the increased stochasticity. When these mutations affect cellular energetics, nuclear retrograde signalling can upregulate mtDNA replication, which is expected to slow clonal expansion of these mutant mtDNA. However, our simulations suggest that the protective ability of retrograde signalling depends on the efficiency of fusion-fission process. Our results thus shed light on the interplay between mitochondrial fusion-fission and mtDNA turnover and may explain the mechanism underlying the experimentally observed increase in the accumulation of mtDNA mutations when either mitochondrial fusion or fission is inhibited.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Clone Cells
  • Computer Simulation
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondrial Dynamics*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Signal Transduction
  • Stochastic Processes
  • Time Factors


  • DNA, Mitochondrial

Grant support

This study was supported by funding from ETH Zurich, the National University of Singapore (FRC Grant R-279-000-299-112) and the Ministry of Education Singapore (MOE2010-T2-2-048). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.