Blood mitochondrial DNA copy number: What are we counting?

Mitochondrion. 2021 Sep:60:1-11. doi: 10.1016/j.mito.2021.06.010. Epub 2021 Jun 19.


There is growing scientific interest to develop scalable biological measures that capture mitochondrial (dys)function. Mitochondria have their own genome, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). It has been proposed that the number of mtDNA copies per cell (mtDNA copy number; mtDNAcn) reflects mitochondrial health. The common availability of stored DNA material or existing DNA sequencing data, especially from blood and other easy-to-collect samples, has made its quantification a popular approach in clinical and epidemiological studies. However, the interpretation of mtDNAcn is not univocal, and either a reduction or elevation in mtDNAcn can indicate dysfunction. The major determinants of blood-derived mtDNAcn are the heterogeneous cell type composition of leukocytes and platelet abundance, which can change with time of day, aging, and with disease. Hematopoiesis is a likely driver of blood mtDNAcn. Here we discuss the rationale and available methods to quantify mtDNAcn, the influence of blood cell type variations, and consider important gaps in knowledge that need to be resolved to maximize the scientific value around the investigation of blood mtDNAcn.

Keywords: Biomarker; Count; Leukocytes; Mitochondrial function; Mitochondrial genome; Mitochondrion; White blood cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • DNA Copy Number Variations*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / blood*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / genetics*


  • DNA, Mitochondrial