Mitochondrial DNA disorders: from pathogenic variants to preventing transmission

Hum Mol Genet. 2021 Oct 1;30(R2):R245-R253. doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddab156.


Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) disorders are recognized as one of the most common causes of inherited metabolic disorders. The mitochondrial genome occurs in multiple copies resulting in both homoplasmic and heteroplasmic pathogenic mtDNA variants. A biochemical defect arises when the pathogenic variant level reaches a threshold, which differs between variants. Moreover, variants can segregate, clonally expand, or be lost from cellular populations resulting in a dynamic and tissue-specific mosaic pattern of oxidative deficiency. MtDNA is maternally inherited but transmission patterns of heteroplasmic pathogenic variants are complex. During oogenesis, a mitochondrial bottleneck results in offspring with widely differing variant levels to their mother, whilst highly deleterious variants, such as deletions, are not transmitted. Complemented by a complex interplay between mitochondrial and nuclear genomes, these peculiar genetics produce marked phenotypic variation, posing challenges to the diagnosis and clinical management of patients. Novel therapeutic compounds and several genetic therapies are currently under investigation, but proven disease-modifying therapies remain elusive. Women who carry pathogenic mtDNA variants require bespoke genetic counselling to determine their reproductive options. Recent advances in in vitro fertilization techniques, have greatly improved reproductive choices, but are not without their challenges. Since the first pathogenic mtDNA variants were identified over 30 years ago, there has been remarkable progress in our understanding of these diseases. However, many questions remain unanswered and future studies are required to investigate the mechanisms of disease progression and to identify new disease-specific therapeutic targets.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • DNA, Mitochondrial*
  • Disease Management
  • Extrachromosomal Inheritance
  • Genetic Association Studies*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondrial Diseases / diagnosis
  • Mitochondrial Diseases / genetics*
  • Mitochondrial Diseases / therapy


  • DNA, Mitochondrial