Cellular and population level processes influence the rate, accumulation and observed frequency of inherited and somatic mtDNA mutations

Richard G. Melvin, John William O. Ballard

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

5 Scopus citations


Mitochondria are found in all animals and have the unique feature of containing multiple copies of their own small, circular DNA genome (mtDNA). The rate and pattern of mutation accumulation in the mtDNA are influenced by molecular, cellular and population level processes. We distinguish between inherited and somatic mtDNA mutations and review evidence for the often-made assumption that mutations accumulate at a higher rate in mtDNA than in nuclear DNA (nDNA). We conclude that the whole genome mutation accumulation rate is higher for mtDNA than for nDNA but include the caveat that rates overlap considerably between the individual mtDNA- and nDNAencoded genes. Next, we discuss the postulated causal mechanisms for the high rate of mtDNA mutation accumulation in both inheritance and in somatic cells. Perhaps unexpectedly, mtDNA is resilient to many mutagens of nDNA but is prone to errors of replication. We then consider the influence of maternal inheritance, recombination and selection on the observed accumulation pattern of inherited mtDNA mutations. Finally, we discuss environmental influences of temperature and diet on the observed frequency of inherited and somatic mtDNA mutations. We conclude that it is necessary to understand the cellular processes to fully interpret the pattern of mutations and how they influence our interpretations of evolution and disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)323-334
Number of pages12
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2017
Externally publishedYes


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