Some basic biology may need revising. It's broadly assumed that cells degrade and recycle their own old or damaged organelles, but researchers writing in PNAS say that some neurons transfer unwanted mitochondria, the tiny power plants inside cells, to supporting glial cells called astrocytes for disposal.
The researchers looked specifically at the axons of retinal ganglion cells in mice, a type of neuron that transmits visual information from the eye to the brain. The investigation was prompted by observations while studying a mouse model of glaucoma that protein products from the retina were accumulating in the optic nerve head (ONH) just behind the eye.
Using a combination of advanced microscopy and molecular technique, they discovered that damaged mitochondria in retinal ganglion cells were shed at the ONH where ganglion cell axons exit the eye to form the optic nerve leading to the brain. These mitochondria were taken up and degraded by adjacent astrocytes, the most abundant form of glial cell in the vertebrate nervous system and the only cell which bridges between nerve cells and the brain's blood supply.
They say the discovery refutes the common assumption that all cells internally isolate, degrade and remove damaged materials – a process generally known as autophagy (Greek for "to self-eat"). When the process involves mitochondria, it's called mitophagy. They dubbed the process "transmitophagy."
"It does call into question the conventional assumption that cells necessarily degrade their own organelles. We don't yet know how generalized this process is throughout the brain, but our work suggests it's probably widespread," said Mark H. Ellisman, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Neurosciences, director of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research (NCMIR) at UC San Diego and co-senior author of the study with Nicholas Marsh-Armstrong, PhD, in the Department of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and the Hugo W. Moser Research Institute at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
"The discovery of a standard process for transfer of trash from neuron to glia will most likely be very important to understanding age-related declines in function of the brain and neurodegenerative or metabolic disorders," Marsh-Armstrong said. "We expect the impact to be significant in other areas of biomedicine as well."
If so, the findings still leave questions to be answered. For example, do the mitochondria removed at the ONH originate only from the population residing in the long conducting nerve fibers from the eye to the brain or are some actively transported from the retina itself?
Ellisman said the findings could potentially improve understanding – and perhaps eventually the treatment – of diverse disorders. "Mitochondria play prominent roles in the health of axons, which are fundamental to connecting neurons and transmitting information. It should be a priority to further explore what happens in transmitophagy and whether defects in this phenomenon contribute to neuronal dysfunction or disease."