Mitochondria are able to use glucose to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which provides energy for many critical functions in cells.
During the synthesis of ATP, mitochondria will store the electrochemical potential energy in the inner mitochondrial membrane.
When the concentration of protons on both sides of the inner membrane is asymmetrical, a mitochondrial membrane potential develops.
It has been shown that membrane potential decreases with age, with this process possibly playing a role in diseases such as neurodegenerative disorders.
In a recent study published in Nature Aging, researchers used genetically edited mitochondria to convert light energy into chemical energy that can be used by cells and extend the life span of nematodes.
The researchers used the common model organism Cryptobacterium hidradenum (Caenorhabditis elegans) and genetically modified it to express a light-activated proton pump from the fungus.
When the nematode is exposed to light, the proton pump allows ions to cross the membrane and use light to “charge” the mitochondria.
The results showed that this modification elevated the membrane potential and could promote ATP synthesis.
And the life span of the modified nematodes increased by 30%-40%.
The researchers say that this is equivalent to adding a “solar panel” to the mitochondrial “power plant”.
In the future, it is hoped that further studies on rodents and human cells will provide information on human disease and aging processes.