Important Attachments

Everyone learns about mitochondria in the most basic of biology classes, and most of us will always recall how these were described to us then — they are the powerhouse of the cell. This simple definition is very apt because the organelle is necessary for keeping human cells working well.

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Researchers from the Living Systems Institute of the University of Exeter in the U.K., captured of one of the ways the mitochondria might be getting its much-needed proteins, a process that was never really imaged in detail before. They published their findings in the journal EMBO Reports.

"Proteins are responsible for nearly all cellular processes. The cell has to make a huge variety of proteins and target them to the precise location where they are needed to function," lead researcher Vicki Gold said in a press release. The researchers found that some ribosomes, which produce proteins in the cell, are attached to the mitochondria — allowing for the latter to get proteins directly.

Mitochondrial Dysfunction

Gold and her colleagues were able to capture an image of this process using the University of Exeter's cryo-electron microscopy facility. "In the case of mitochondria, proteins have to cross the boundary of two membranes to get inside them. We looked for — and were able to image at unprecedented detail — ribosomes attached to mitochondria," she explained.

Ribosomes on the surface of mitochondria. Image credit: University of Exeter

The next step is applying what they learn here in understanding cases where the mitochondria isn't working properly, such as in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and even in certain instances of cancer.

"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," Gold 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."

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