Mitochondrial DNA: Epigenetics and environment

Environ Mol Mutagen. 2019 Oct;60(8):668-682. doi: 10.1002/em.22319. Epub 2019 Aug 6.


Maintenance of the mitochondrial genome is essential for proper cellular function. For this purpose, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) needs to be faithfully replicated, transcribed, translated, and repaired in the face of constant onslaught from endogenous and environmental agents. Although only 13 polypeptides are encoded within mtDNA, the mitochondrial proteome comprises over 1500 proteins that are encoded by nuclear genes and translocated to the mitochondria for the purpose of maintaining mitochondrial function. Regulation of mtDNA and mitochondrial proteins by epigenetic changes and post-translational modifications facilitate crosstalk between the nucleus and the mitochondria and ultimately lead to the maintenance of cellular health and homeostasis. DNA methyl transferases have been identified in the mitochondria implicating that methylation occurs within this organelle; however, the extent to which mtDNA is methylated has been debated for many years. Mechanisms of demethylation within this organelle have also been postulated, but the exact mechanisms and their outcomes is still an active area of research. Mitochondrial dysfunction in the form of altered gene expression and ATP production, resulting from epigenetic changes, can lead to various conditions including aging-related neurodegenerative disorders, altered metabolism, changes in circadian rhythm, and cancer. Here, we provide an overview of the epigenetic regulation of mtDNA via methylation, long and short noncoding RNAs, and post-translational modifications of nucleoid proteins (as mitochondria lack histones). We also highlight the influence of xenobiotics such as airborne environmental pollutants, contamination from heavy metals, and therapeutic drugs on mtDNA methylation. Environ. Mol. Mutagen., 60:668-682, 2019. © 2019 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Keywords: mitochondrial epigenetics; mitochondrial post-translational modifications; mtDNA methylation; noncoding RNAs; xenobiotics.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • DNA Methylation / genetics*
  • DNA Replication / genetics
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics*
  • Genome, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / genetics*
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational / genetics
  • RNA, Untranslated / genetics*


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • RNA, Untranslated