Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA or mDNA) is the DNA located in mitochondria, cellular organelles within eukaryotic cells that convert chemical energy from food into a form that cells can use, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Mitochondrial DNA is only a small portion of the DNA in a eukaryotic cell; most of the DNA can be found in the cell nucleus and, in plants and algae, also in plastids such as chloroplasts.
In humans, the 16,569 base pairs of mitochondrial DNA encode for only 37 genes. Human mitochondrial DNA was the first significant part of the human genome to be sequenced. In most species, including humans, mtDNA is inherited solely from the mother.
Since animal mtDNA evolves faster than nuclear genetic markers, it represents a mainstay of phylogenetics and evolutionary biology. It also permits an examination of the relatedness of populations, and so has become important in anthropology and biogeography.
Nuclear and mitochondrial DNA are thought to be of separate evolutionary origin, with the mtDNA being derived from the circular genomes of the bacteria that were engulfed by the early ancestors of today's eukaryotic cells. This theory is called the endosymbiotic theory. Each mitochondrion is estimated to contain 2–10 mtDNA copies. In the cells of extant organisms, the vast majority of the proteins present in the mitochondria (numbering approximately 1500 different types in mammals) are coded for by nuclear DNA, but the genes for some, if not most, of them are thought to have originally been of bacterial origin, having since been transferred to the eukaryotic nucleus during evolution.
The reasons why mitochondria have retained some genes are debated. The existence in some species of mitochondrion-derived organelles lacking a genome suggests that complete gene loss is possible, and transferring mitochondrial genes to the nucleus has several advantages. The difficulty of targeting remotely-produced hydrophobic protein products to the mitochondrion is one hypothesis for why some genes are retained in mtDNA; colocalisation for redox regulation is another, citing the desirability of localised control over mitochondrial machinery. Recent analysis of a wide range of mtDNA genomes suggests that both these features may dictate mitochondrial gene retention.