Somatic mutations of the mitochondrial genome in human colorectal tumours

Nat Genet. 1998 Nov;20(3):291-3. doi: 10.1038/3108.


Alterations of oxidative phosphorylation in tumour cells were originally believed to have a causative role in cancerous growth. More recently, mitochondria have again received attention with regards to neoplasia, largely because of their role in apoptosis and other aspects of tumour biology. The mitochondrial genome is particularly susceptible to mutations because of the high level of reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation in this organelle, coupled with a low level of DNA repair. However, no detailed analysis of mitochondrial DNA in human tumours has yet been reported. In this study, we analysed the complete mtDNA genome of ten human colorectal cancer cell lines by sequencing and found mutations in seven (70%). The majority of mutations were transitions at purines, consistent with an ROS-related derivation. The mutations were somatic, and those evaluated occurred in the primary tumour from which the cell line was derived. Most of the mutations were homoplasmic, indicating that the mutant genome was dominant at the intracellular and intercellular levels. We showed that mitochondria can rapidly become homogeneous in colorectal cancer cells using cell fusions. These findings provide the first examples of homoplasmic mutations in the mtDNA of tumour cells and have potential implications for the abnormal metabolic and apoptotic processes in cancer.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Base Sequence
  • Cell Fusion
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / metabolism
  • DNA Damage
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • DNA, Neoplasm / genetics*
  • Genome, Human*
  • Humans
  • Mutation*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • DNA, Neoplasm
  • Reactive Oxygen Species