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Understanding mitochondria - a background article


This is a background article about mitochondria, the tiny organelles that live inside every cell and provide us with the chemical energy to drive all the processes that create life. They have been described as the "powerhouse of the cell".

It is becoming clear that several chronic diseases involve malfunctioning of the mitochondrial - diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome and diabetes. Evidence is building that environmental toxins such as Roundup interfere with mitochondia - not so much through the active ingredient glyphosate, but through other chemicals in the formulation that act as surfactants. I'm writing this article in order to better understand what happens inside mitochondria, because I think this will be important when it comes to understanding the diseases that these toxins cause and what to do to repair the damage. As such it's probably not necessary to read this at the outset, but I will be referring back to it as I dig deeper.

What do mitochondria do?

The primary function of mitochondria is to provide our cells with energy.  They do this through a fantastically complex process that involves taking basic food molecules such as sugars and fats, and breaking them down, a single chemical bond at a time, and efficiently capturing the energy that is released.  The end result of this process is a set of molecules of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which store energy in the form of high-energy phosphate bonds. ATP is then used by most of our cellular processes to drive chemical reactions, and the used ATP is recycled to the mitochondria as ADP (adenosine disphosphate) plus a phosphate molecule. Back in the mitochondria ADP + P is reassembled to ATP, and the cycle continues.

This whole process is called oxidative phosphorylation, because food molecules such as glucose are oxidised to carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H20), and at the same time a phosphate bond is created in the ATP molecule.

As the diagram below shows, food molecules are split and combined with a carrier enzyme to form Acetyl Coenzyme-A which enters the Krebs Cycle. This provides energy via carrier molecules to the Electron Transport Chain.  The  ETC acts as a series of pumps to build up a concentrations of H+ hydrogen ions (which are effectively isolated protons) and these are used to drive a processing machine called ATP synthase. This does the work of converting ADP + P to ATP, which powers the cell, as described above.

I have skated through this process very quickly - each component, the Krebs Cycle, Electron Transport Chain and ATP synthase involves many proteins working in harmony and is fantastically complex. The end result is a very efficient conversion of food to energy.

Just as a power station uses high pressure steam to do the work, mitochondria use highly energetic molecules to achieve the same result. These ultimately have to be neutralised before they do damage to the cells.  The neutralisation stages are shown belor the Electron Transport Chain:

  • Oxygen gains a free electron to produce the highly unstable molecule superoxide (O2-)
  • Superoxide is then reduced to hydrohen peroxide (H2O2)
  • This then gains an electron and is split to produce hydroxide ions (OH-). If you've ever handled sodium hydroxide you will now how caustic this chemical is.
  • Finally the hydroxide ions are reduced to water.

Essentially in this process, oxygen from the atmosphere is being used to absorb the free high-energy hydrogen ions to produce water. This completes the oxidation process.  The molecules mentioned above are highly reactive and can be damaging if they leak out before being neutralised. In particular superoxide, which is a free radical, is particularly toxic. It is thought that one of the extra components of the Roundup formulation has an effect on the mitochondial membranes allowing free radicals to escape into the cell, where they can do a lot of damage, including causing mutations in the genetic code.



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