Mitochondrial function, ornamentation, and immunocompetence

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2017 Aug;92(3):1459-1474. doi: 10.1111/brv.12291. Epub 2016 Jul 25.


Understanding the mechanisms that link ornamental displays and individual condition is key to understanding the evolution and function of ornaments. Immune function is an aspect of individual quality that is often associated with the expression of ornamentation, but a general explanation for why the expression of some ornaments seems to be consistently linked to immunocompetence remains elusive. We propose that condition-dependent ornaments may be linked to key aspects of immunocompetence through co-dependence on mitochondrial function. Mitochondrial involvement in immune function is rarely considered outside of the biomedical literature, but the role of mitochondria as the primary energy producers of the cell and the centres of biosynthesis, the oxidative stress response, and cellular signalling place them at the hub of a variety of immune pathways. A promising new mechanistic explanation for correlations between a wide range of ornamental traits and the properties of individual quality is that mitochondrial function may be the 'shared pathway' responsible for links between ornament production and individual condition. Herein, we first review the role of mitochondria as both signal transducers and metabolic regulators of immune function. We then describe connections between hormonal pathways and mitochondria, with implications for both immune function and the expression of ornamentation. Finally, we explore the possibility that ornament expression may link directly to mitochondrial function. Considering condition-dependent traits within the framework of mitochondrial function has the potential to unify central tenets within the study of sexual selection, eco-immunology, oxidative stress ecology, stress and reproductive hormone biology, and animal physiology.

Keywords: OXPHOS; ROS; adaptive immune function; display trait; hormones; innate immune function; mitochondria; oxidative phosphorylation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Immunocompetence*
  • Mitochondria / immunology
  • Mitochondria / physiology*
  • Phenotype