Eukaryotic Cells

Mitochondria

Scientists often call mitochondria (singular = mitochondrion) the cell's “powerhouses” or “energy factories” because they are responsible for making adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cell’s main energy-carrying molecule. ATP represents the cell's short-term stored energy. Cellular respiration is the process of making ATP using the chemical energy in glucose and other nutrients. In mitochondria, this process uses oxygen and produces carbon dioxide as a waste product. In fact, the carbon dioxide that you exhale with every breath comes from the cellular reactions that produce carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

In keeping with our theme of form following function, it is important to point out that muscle cells have a very high concentration of mitochondria that produce ATP. Your muscle cells need considerable energy to keep your body moving. When your cells don’t get enough oxygen, they do not make much ATP. Instead, producing lactic acid accompanies the small amount of ATP they make in the absence of oxygen.

Mitochondria are oval-shaped, double membrane organelles (Figure) that have their own ribosomes and DNA. Each membrane is a phospholipid bilayer embedded with proteins. The inner layer has folds called cristae. We call the area surrounded by the folds the mitochondrial matrix. The cristae and the matrix have different roles in cellular respiration.

This transmission electron micrograph of a mitochondrion shows an oval outer membrane and an inner membrane with many folds called cristae. Inside the inner membrane is a space called the mitochondrial matrix.
This electron micrograph shows a mitochondrion through an electron microscope. This organelle has an outer membrane and an inner membrane. The inner membrane contains folds, called cristae, which increase its surface area. We call the space between the two membranes the intermembrane space, and the space inside the inner membrane the mitochondrial matrix. ATP synthesis takes place on the inner membrane. (credit: modification of work by Matthew Britton; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)