“Our terminal decline into old age and death stems from the fine print of the contract that we signed with our mitochondria two billion years ago.”

Nick Lane, Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life

The life and death of mitochondria in neurons

Our lab is interested in the homeostatic mechanisms that allow neuronal mitochondria to exist far away from the cellbody and still retain a functional proteome. This process, called “Mitostasis”, is most likely a finely tuned concert of mitochondrial transport, local protein synthesis and local degradation by proteasomal and autophagic mechanisms. Failure to maintain mitochondrial quality – especially in neurons – leads to neurodegenerative diseases, underlining the importance of our research.

EM picture of mito in axon

However, mitochondria do not exist uncoupled from their surroundings, but communicate with the cell through calcium transients, metabolites, reactive oxygen species, cytochrome C release or via membrane contact sites. This allows them to tune their function to alter their surroundings in many ways, which we are exploring currently. However, this is a two-way street, as cellular signaling can also affect mitochondrial functions, through direct phosphorylation or other modifications of mitochondrial outer membrane proteins. This cross-talk of mitochondrial and cellular signaling lies at the core of our research interests.

Cerebellar neurons stained with fluorescent antibody

Finally, neurons are not only exceptional when it comes to size, but they are also the building blocks of an exceptional organ, our brain. How the various shapes and functions of mitochondria are shaping the life and death of neurons and ultimately of memory formation is a question we love to pursue.