Mechanisms of human mitochondrial DNA maintenance: The determining role of primary sequence and length over function

Carlos T. Moraes, Lesley Kenyon, Huiling Hao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Scopus citations


Although the regulation of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) copy number is performed by nuclear-coded factors, very little is known about the mechanisms controlling this process. We attempted to introduce nonhuman ape mtDNA into human cells harboring either no mtDNA or mutated mtDNAs (partial deletion and tRNA gene point mutation). Unexpectedly, only cells containing no mtDNA could be repopulated with nonhuman ape mtDNA. Cells containing a defective human mtDNA did not incorporate or maintain ape mtDNA and therefore died under selection for oxidative phosphorylation function. On the other hand, foreign human mtDNA was readily incorporated and maintained in these cells. The suicidal preference for self-mtDNA showed that functional parameters associated with oxidative phosphorylation are less relevant to mtDNA maintenance and copy number control than recognition of mtDNA self- determinants. Non-self-mtDNA could not be maintained into cells with mtDNA even if no selection for oxidative phosphorylation was applied. The repopulation kinetics of several mtDNA forms after severe depletion by ethidium bromide treatment showed that replication and maintenance of mtDNA in human cells are highly dependent on molecular features, because partially deleted mtDNA molecules repopulated cells significantly faster than full- length mtDNA. Taken together, our results suggest that mtDNA copy number may be controlled by competition for limiting levels of trans-acting factors that recognize primarily mtDNA molecular features. In agreement with this hypothesis, marked variations in mtDNA levels did not affect the transcription of nuclear-coded factors involved in mtDNA replication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3345-3356
Number of pages12
JournalMolecular biology of the cell
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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