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Scientists make breakthrough in study of mitochondria

"Mitochondria are the energy factories of the cell, so when they don't function properly it can lead to a huge range of health problems," explained researcher Vicki Gold.

By
Brooks Hays
A computer model based on images captured via cryo-electron microscopy reveal ribosomes attached to the surface of a mitochondrion, a cell's powerhouse. Photo by University of Exeter
A computer model based on images captured via cryo-electron microscopy reveal ribosomes attached to the surface of a mitochondrion, a cell's powerhouse. Photo by University of Exeter

Aug. 30 (UPI) -- The mitochondria is the cell's engine room, or powerhouse. They boast their own set of DNA and produce a unique collection of proteins.

How mitochondria and their distinct ingredients form has remained a mystery. In a new study, however, researchers at the University of Exeter managed to image the mitochondrial protein production process.

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The latest analysis showed some ribosomes, tiny protein-making factories, are attached to the mitochondrion inside a cell. These factories push novel proteins across the double membrane-bound organelle.

"We looked for -- and were able to image at unprecedented detail -- ribosomes attached to mitochondria," Vicki Gold, a biochemist and senior lecturer at Exeter, said in a news release.

Gold and her colleagues captured the images using cryo-electron microscopy.

The breakthrough promises to help scientists better understand the mechanisms by which mitochondria arm themselves with the proteins they need to function properly. Mitochondrial dysfunction has been identified as a potential cause of several diseases, including cancer.

Gold detailed her findings in a new paper published this week in the journal EMBO Reports. She's now aiming to study the mitochondrial protein production process in unhealthy cells.

"Mitochondria are the energy factories of the cell, so when they don't function properly it can lead to a huge range of health problems," she said. "In many cases these are age-related disorders like Parkinson's disease."

"Our findings may help us understand these conditions better, which is an important step towards better treatments," Gold concluded.

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