One of the grand challenges of the postgenomics era is to mechanistically link the genotype with the phenotype. Here, we consider the link between the mitochondrial genotype and the organismal phenotype that is provided by bioenergetic studies of the electron transport chain. That linkage is pertinent for the fields of molecular ecology and phylogeography as it tests if, and potentially how, natural selection can influence the evolutionary and demographic past of both populations and species. We introduce the mitochondrial genotype in terms of mitochondrial-encoded genes, nuclear-encoded genes that produce structural proteins imported into the mitochondria, and mitochondrial DNA-nuclear interactions. We then review the potential for quaternary structure modelling to predict the functional consequence of specific naturally occurring mutations. We discuss how the energy-producing reactions of oxidative phosphorylation can be used to provide a mechanistic biochemical link between genotype and phenotype. Experimental manipulations can then be used to test the functional consequences of specific mutations in multiple genetic backgrounds. Finally, we examine how mitochondria can influence the organismal mitochondrial phenotype using the examples of lifespan, fertility and starvation resistance and discuss how mitochondria may be involved in establishing both the upper and lower thermal limits of organisms. We conclude that mitochondrial DNA mutations can be important in determining aspects of organism life history. The question that remains to be resolved is how common are these adaptive mutations?
- Oxidative phosphorylation
- Quaternary structure