Deciphering the genetic and epidemiological landscape of mitochondrial DNA abundance

Hum Genet. 2021 Jun;140(6):849-861. doi: 10.1007/s00439-020-02249-w. Epub 2020 Dec 31.


Mitochondrial (MT) dysfunction is a hallmark of aging and has been associated with most aging-related diseases as well as immunological processes. However, little is known about aging, lifestyle and genetic factors influencing mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) abundance. In this study, mtDNA abundance was estimated from the weighted intensities of probes mapping to the MT genome in 295,150 participants from the UK Biobank. We found that the abundance of mtDNA was significantly elevated in women compared to men, was negatively correlated with advanced age, higher smoking exposure, greater body-mass index, higher frailty index as well as elevated red and white blood cell count and lower mortality. In addition, several biochemistry markers in blood-related to cholesterol metabolism, ion homeostasis and kidney function were found to be significantly associated with mtDNA abundance. By performing a genome-wide association study, we identified 50 independent regions genome-wide significantly associated with mtDNA abundance which harbour multiple genes involved in the immune system, cancer as well as mitochondrial function. Using mixed effects models, we estimated the SNP-heritability of mtDNA abundance to be around 8%. To investigate the consequence of altered mtDNA abundance, we performed a phenome-wide association study and found that mtDNA abundance is involved in risk for leukaemia, hematologic diseases as well as hypertension. Thus, estimating mtDNA abundance from genotyping arrays has the potential to provide novel insights into age- and disease-relevant processes, particularly those related to immunity and established mitochondrial functions.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / genetics*
  • Aging / immunology
  • Biological Specimen Banks
  • Body Mass Index
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / immunology
  • Erythrocyte Count
  • Female
  • Genome, Mitochondrial*
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Hematologic Diseases / epidemiology
  • Hematologic Diseases / genetics*
  • Hematologic Diseases / immunology
  • Hematologic Diseases / pathology
  • Humans
  • Hypertension / epidemiology
  • Hypertension / genetics*
  • Hypertension / immunology
  • Hypertension / pathology
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Inheritance Patterns / immunology
  • Leukemia / epidemiology
  • Leukemia / genetics*
  • Leukemia / immunology
  • Leukemia / pathology
  • Leukocyte Count
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mitochondria / genetics
  • Mitochondria / immunology
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide
  • Smoking / genetics
  • Smoking / physiopathology
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology


  • DNA, Mitochondrial