I'm curious about what happens when you insert organelles from a cell into another. In particular, mitochondria.

Take two cells from your own body. Somehow extract a mitochondria from one cell and somehow insert it in the other cell.

Will the cell with the foreign mitochondria make use of it (respiration), or will it dispose it?

What if the foreign mitochondria comes from someone else's body?

What if the foreign mitochondria comes from another species' cell?


There is evidence that cells can exchange mitochondria. There are some donor cells that transfer mitochondria to recipient cells via cytoplasmic nanotubes (within the same species). This happens endogenously and triggering factors may include stress.


On interspecies mitochondria transfer.

In a study by Yang and Koob, the feasibility of mitochondrial transplants was studied. Mitochondria isolated from donor cells were initially injected into mouse oocytes/embryos. Then mitochondria, along with a chunk of cytoplasm and membrane was taken out; these cell-like structures were called mitocytoplasts. Then, these mitocytoplasts were fused with recipient cells (mouse rho0 cells - these lack mitochondria) with the help of a viral fusion protein.

They found that the recipient cells supported mitochondria from the same species (donor species include mouse, rat, Mongolian gerbils and Golden Syrian hamsters).

The success of the "mitochondrial xenograft" depends on how different the species are and as shown in the abovementioned experiment, a donor cell (mouse) would not support the mitochondria from even a closely related species (rat). This incompatibility would primarily be based on the dependency of mitochondria on the nuclear genome which may be different for different species. It is possible that "mitochondrial xenografts" may be accepted; the impossibility of it has not been exhaustively verified.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting stuff. +1 great answer $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jul 24 '15 at 9:22

I'm not entirely sure about cross species organelle transfer (lets focus on mitochondria), but some people have already made three parent babies, therefore mitochondria are at least transferable between individuals of the same species.

The reason for the operation was to cure a disease that was inherent to the mitochondria of the mother (mitochondria always come from the mother, never the father). They used the genetic material from the nuclei of the mother and father, and used the mitochondria of a "foster" mother.


  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Interesting! But this looks like transfer of the nucleus, rather than transfer of mitochondria. So it doesn't answer the question of whether a cell would accept "foreign" mitochondria I think. $\endgroup$ – Roland Jul 24 '15 at 6:42

Another keyword for interspecies mitochondrial transfers is "xenomitochondrial". Carlos Moraes' lab is probably one of the the main groups that study this over the years, finding that mitochondria from only some great apes could functionally substitute for human mitochondria in cell lines.

Kenyon & Moraes "Expanding the functional human mitochondrial DNA database by the establishment of primate xenomitochondrial cybrids" PNAS 1997 http://www.pnas.org/content/94/17/9131.short

  • $\begingroup$ this is a comment that adds nicely to the pre-existing answers, but is not a stand-alone answer by itself. $\endgroup$ – Vance L Albaugh Aug 20 '16 at 12:40

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