Disorders of the mitochondria

Semin Liver Dis. 1998;18(3):237-53. doi: 10.1055/s-2007-1007160.


Recent advances in our understanding of the structure and function of mitochondria have led to the recognition that inherited and acquired mitochondrial dysfunction may be responsible for diseases affecting the liver and other organ systems. Mitochondrial health may also determine hepatocyte survival in other hepatic disorders not directly related to the mitochondrion. Primary mitochondrial hepatopathies are conditions in which there are inherited defects in structure or function of the mitochondria, most of which involve the respiratory chain and oxidative phosphorylation, fatty acid oxidation, the urea cycle, and other pathways confined to mitochondria. Maternally inherited mutations or deletions of the mitochondrial genome, or putative nuclear gene mutations encoding electron transport proteins, cause defective electron transport, oxidative stress, impaired oxidative phosphorylation, and other metabolic derangements that lead to hepatic failure or chronic liver dysfunction in affected children. The mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) depletion syndrome, which similarly leads to liver failure and neurologic abnormalities, is caused by a putative nuclear gene that controls mtDNA replication or stability. Other proven or suspected primary mitochondrial hepatopathies include Pearson's marrow-pancreas syndrome, Alpers disease, mitochondrial neurogastrointestinal encephalomyopathy syndrome, and Navajo neuropathy. Secondary mitochondrial hepatopathies are conditions in which the mitochondria are major targets during liver injury from another cause, such as metal overload, certain drugs and toxins, alcoholic liver injury, and conditions of oxidant stress. Diagnosis of mitochondrial dysfunction may be difficult with currently available tools, however, elevated blood lactate: pyruvate ratios or arterial ketone body ratios with characteristic liver histology are initial tests. Measuring respiratory chain enzyme activities, mtDNA levels, and searching for mtDNA mutations and deletions are more specific tests. Treatment of these disorders is currently empirical, involving agents that may improve the redox status of mitochondria, promote electron flow, or act as mitochondrial antioxidants. Liver transplantation has occasionally been successful in patients who lack other systemic involvement.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Electron Transport
  • Free Radicals / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Liver Diseases / genetics
  • Liver Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Liver Diseases / therapy
  • Mitochondria, Liver / genetics
  • Mitochondria, Liver / metabolism*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Oxidative Phosphorylation
  • Point Mutation


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Free Radicals