Advancing Mitochondrial Health with Protective Gene Copies

Research Info

Mitochondria perform and support several vital functions in a cell, and the alternate genome, mtDNA, plays a critical role in organelle maintenance. There is increasing evidence that mitochondrial function declines with age, and that dysfunctional mitochondria adversely contribute to several metabolic and neuromuscular diseases. Our goal is to address age-acquired and inborn errors of mutation in the mtDNA using a gene therapy approach. We are exploring:

  1. allotopic expression (expressing mtDNA genes from the nucleus), and
  2. whole-organelle replacement

as strategies to revitalize mitochondrial function. Our multidisciplinary approach employs cell culture and mouse models to achieve our objectives.

Allotopic Expression of Proteins Encoded in the Mitochondrial DNA

Mitochondria are the ‘power plants’ in every mammalian cell responsible for the efficient conversion of nutrients to energy. Impaired mitochondrial function and mutations in mtDNA contribute to several age-related illnesses, including Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease, and sarcopenia. Point mutations in any of the 13 protein-coding regions, as well as micro- and macro- deletions in the mtDNA, lead to several monogenic and organelle-specific diseases (MELAS, MEERF, LHON, Leigh’s disease to name a few). However, alterations in the OriH / OriL regions in the mtDNA can lead to global impairment in the transcription and translation of the mitochondrial genome. The mitochondrial proteome, however, consists of ~1400 proteins of which all except for the 13 polypeptides translated on the mitochondrial genome originate from the host’ nucleus. Over the course of evolution, mitochondria have developed sophisticated mechanisms to import these nuclear mitochondrial proteins. These mechanisms employ intricate translocases and signals, which are directed to different regions within the organelle.

The goal of this project is to determine how we might achieve optimal parameters for coding and non-coding regions to efficiently express and target the 13 mtDNA genes to the respiratory chain from the nucleus. Toward this end, we employ molecular biology, biochemistry and computational strategies, and refine and build on our existing knowledge of import conditions for the numerous nuclear mitochondrial proteins already delineated. We use patient-derived cybrids and animal models in assessing the functional utility of our constructs. Ultimately, we aim to express the mtDNA genes individually or in combination to overcome age-related changes to the mtDNA and improve overall organelle fitness. Please see here for recent progress on this project.


Reversing Age-Induced Mitochondrial Damage through Organelle Transplantation

Intercellular mitochondria exchange occurs naturally in the human body between cell types, typically between healthy and damaged cells. Three different transfer mechanisms have been observed:

  1. stem cells release naked mitochondria that are taken up by other cells,
  2. mitochondria are released extracellularly, enclosed in vesicles that are in turn taken up by recipient cells (possibly via endocytosis), or
  3. mitochondria migrate from one cell to another through specialized structures in vivo, such as nanotubes.

The goal of this project is to evaluate the potential of mitochondrial transfer to counteract age-related loss of tissue function. We aim to develop strategies to purify viable mitochondria and deliver them to target regions in the body.

Team Members

We’re Hiring!

Please visit the Work With Us page to learn about available positions.


Amutha Boominathan, PhD

Principal Investigator


Bhavna Dixit, MS (Research Associate II)

Research Staff


David Begelman, BS (Research Associate I)

Research Staff

Carly Truong_headshot

Carly Truong, BS (Research Technician)

Research Staff


Jay-Miguel Fonticella (Class of 2022, Tufts University, BS)

Summer Scholar

Emily Wallace_headshot

Emily Wallace (Class of 2024, U Mich. BSE)

Summer Scholar

Lab Alumni

Research Staff

  • Jayanthi Vengalam (2012-2015) – now at Protagonist Therapeutics
  • Shon Vanhoozer (2014-2017)
  • Kathleen Powers (2015-2017) – now at Bristol Myers Squibb
  • Caitlin Lewis (2017-2021) – now at SENS Research Foundation CSO Team

Summer Scholars and Postbaccalaureate Fellows


Dr. Martin Brand

Dr. Birgit Schilling




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The Foster Foundation Crowdfunding Campaigns

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