When Metabolism Theme leader Orian Shirihai, MD, PhD, talks about obesity, he envisions mitochondria (the power plants for cells) trying to deal with an excess nutrient environment.
Inside cells, tiny organs called organelles manage highly specialized tasks. Organelles are to the cells what organs are to the body – they function independently, but they are all connected. Mitochondria are a type of organelle that function as little power plants to handle the work of burning nutrients. When it comes to studying metabolism, mitochondria are the stars of the show.
Mitochondria continually change shape depending on whether they are “eating” sugar or fat. The process works this way:
- When a person fasts, mitochondria burn fatty acids to keep glucose high enough to prevent low blood sugar.
- After a person eats, mitochondria prefer to gobble glucose, this time to prevent blood sugar from becoming too high.
- When a person eats a lot of food somewhat steadily, mitochondria change shape continually as they work. They may have difficulty repairing and cleaning themselves after keeping the power plant blasting nonstop.
When organelles have problems repairing themselves, the result is a reduced ability to eliminate defective or toxic parts. For example, a toxic by product of cellular metabolism known as reactive oxygen species (ROS) bombards cellular proteins and membranes, damaging their structures. This stress can lead to a cornucopia of disorders. Learn more about mitochondrial quality control.
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