Eukaryotic cells carry two genomes, nuclear (nDNA) and mitochondrial (mtDNA), which are ostensibly decoupled in their replication, segregation and inheritance. It is increasingly appreciated that heteroplasmy, the occurrence of multiple mtDNA haplotypes in a cell, plays an important biological role, but its features are not well understood. Accurately determining the diversity of mtDNA has been difficult, due to the relatively small amount of mtDNA in each cell (<1% of the total DNA), the intercellular variability of mtDNA content and mtDNA pseudogenes (Numts) in nDNA. To understand the nature of heteroplasmy, we developed Mseek, a novel technique to purify and sequence mtDNA. Mseek yields high purity (>90%) mtDNA and its ability to detect rare variants is limited only by sequencing depth, providing unprecedented sensitivity and specificity. Using Mseek, we confirmed the ubiquity of heteroplasmy by analyzing mtDNA from a diverse set of cell lines and human samples. Applying Mseek to colonies derived from single cells, we find heteroplasmy is stably maintained in individual daughter cells over multiple cell divisions. We hypothesized that the stability of heteroplasmy could be facilitated by intercellular exchange of mtDNA. We explicitly demonstrate this exchange by co-culturing cell lines with distinct mtDNA haplotypes. Our results shed new light on the maintenance of heteroplasmy and provide a novel platform to investigate features of heteroplasmy in normal and diseased states.
© The Author(s) 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.