Eating Mitochondria

This is the age of barnstorming and invention in biotechnology - an age wherein one can speculate about much more complex variations of inserting tab A into slot B without too much fear of proposing an impossibility. Thinking in that vein, I should mention an article I noticed on the topic of bacteria that feed upon mitochondria:

"We'd never seen anything like this before," Lo says, as he opens the image files on his laptop on a rainy afternoon in Sydney. "They seem to get in between the inner and outer mitochondrial membranes and eat the mitochondria up. In the end you've just got this empty sack."

"It's a very novel observation," says Scott O'Neill, a specialist in invertebrate endosymbionts and head of the School of Integrative Science at the University of Queensland, who wasn't involved in the research. O'Neill, whose recent work has focused on the bacterium Wolbachia, says he wasn't aware of any other bacteria that live inside mitochondria. "It's pretty surprising to see a bacterial species living inside the mitochondrion, which itself was a bacterium," he says. "I think it is significant." Bill Ballard, a mitochondrial specialist from the University of New South Wales, agrees. "This is, as far as I know, the first [bacterium] that actually infects within the mitochondria," he says. "It's a pretty cool paper."

Lo's newly found organism doesn't seem to have any negative effects on the ticks. "About half the mitochondria don't get infected," he says, "so perhaps they are only destroying old ones. We don't really know what's going on."

Perhaps distracted by the Star Wars references, I didn't stop to link this to our mammalian problem of accumulating mitochondrial damage - one of the roots of age-related degeneration and disease. Damaged mitochondria take over a fraction of your cells over the decades, turning them into mass exporters of damaging free radicals into the body at large. A regular at the Immortality Institute forums did sit up and take notice, however:

So I'm wondering if these hungry bacteria (mito-phages?) could be reprogrammed to kill defective mitochondria in particular.

Considering all the other things that bacteria have been engineered into doing for us to date, it doesn't seem outside the realm of the possible - although it could certainly be in the realm of "too hard and expensive this decade or next." After all, there has to be some identifiable biochemical methodology already present for our cell to recognize damaged mitochondria - how would one engineer a bacteria to do as much, or to otherwise prefer consuming the damaged mitochondria that lead to aging?

More practical and immediate methods of dealing with damaged mitochondria appear to be in the pipeline - such as protofection - but that's no reason to refrain from speculating on novel or more distant approaches. The more the merrier.

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