In the video "What is Life? Is Death Real?", the subject of mitochondria is raised at 2:58. At 3:12, the narrator says "[mitochondria] are not alive any more: they are dead."

What currents of thought lead to this affirmation?

When I search for mitochondria are dead on Google, I get many links about the role of mitochondria in cell death, but I don't see anywhere that the assertion in this video is discussed.

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    $\begingroup$ idea probably is that mitochondria can't survive outside the host cell. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ @aaaaaa: That seems a strange qualification, since most (probably all) organisms can't survive outside the environment they're adapted to. Humans, for instance, die pretty quick if you don't provide them with oxygen and keep them between roughly -50°-50°C. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ See this related post $\endgroup$
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 4:35
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf SolarLunix made a great point, please consider accepting it $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ Does it really matter why some Youtuber decided they are alive or not? Clearly an argument can be made for them being alive (have DNA, replicate, process chemicals) and not being alive (cannot survive very long outside cells, not very complex) and it comes down to an arbitrary distinction. It's an irrelevant concern, nothing about your (or anyone's) life would change if the Czar of Science decreed one way or another. $\endgroup$
    – Superbest
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 5:34

4 Answers 4


SolarLunix posted an excellent answer detailing the criteria for being classified as "alive", and showed that by those criteria, mitochondria could be considered as "dead".

However, I would argue that the narrator's statement in your video does not make any sense. The currently-accepted theory of the evolution of mitochondria (and possibly other organelles) from free-living prokaryotes is called symbiogenesis and postulates that the mitochondrial progenitors began living symbiotically with the precursors to eukaryotes some 1.5 billion years ago. Life originated on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago, so eukaryotic cells (carrying mitochondria) have been around for a little less than half of that time.

In that incredibly large span of time (if you counted 1 number per second, you'd reach 1.5 billion in about 47.5 years), what used to be an independent organism (we assume) has become an organelle - an integral part of the eukaryotic cell. It absolutely could not survive outside the cell on its own, and relies on signals from the cell (mainly, the cell's energy needs as detected by "sensor" proteins to key molecules like glucose and ATP) to reproduce.

Therefore, it is most appropriate to think of mitochondria simply as another organelle, just like the endoplasmic reticulum, lysosomes, or the nucleus. It doesn't make sense to think of those other structures as "alive" or "dead", just as it doesn't make sense to think of mitochondria in the same way. Yes, they used to be independent, but are no longer; instead they are a well-integrated part of the whole cell.

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    $\begingroup$ My thoughts exactly. Though here's an interesting observation: individual human cells are alive, but individual human organs are not. Both are constituent parts of the human organism, and individual cells are even strongly dependent on the rest of the body. Our individual cells have evolved from their ancient independent forms into the super-symbiotic system of the modern body. They form structures (organs) which are not alive, but those structures combine to form something that is alive. The longer I stare at this strange system, the less inclined I am to care about the definition of life. $\endgroup$
    – talrnu
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ So, long story short, they are no more "dead" as a part of a cell, than, let's say, liver as a part of human body? Do I get your meaning right? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Commented Aug 4, 2015 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot correct. We don't think of the liver, or spleen, or lungs as "alive" or "dead", and it doesn't make sense to think of organelles in that regard as well. $\endgroup$
    – MattDMo
    Commented Aug 4, 2015 at 16:14

Short answer: According to the definition of life, yes, Mitochondria are "dead".

To be considered alive an organism must meet the following criteria:

  • organized structure performing a specific function
  • an ability to sustain existence, e.g. by nourishment
  • an ability to respond to stimuli or to its environment
  • capable of adapting
  • an ability to germinate or reproduce

Are Mitochondria organised?

Yes, they have a structure that allows them to metabolise energy brought to it by the cell.

Can Mitochondria sustain their own existence?

No, many of the genes that mitochondria need to function are no longer in the mitochondria. They need the host cell to provide much of what they need for them.

Note that I am pointing to the Mitochondria's genetics. They used to be included in the Mitochondria itself and have been moved into the cell host DNA. This is why I consider them to be "dead" because they are no longer their own organism, they are an organelle that helps the cell stay alive.

We can stop here since this disqualifies Mitochondria from being considered alive. However, for completion, I will continue.

Can Mitochondria respond to stimuli?

Yes, in order for it to divide it receives signalling from the cell. I would consider this a response to its environment.

Can Mitochondria reproduce?

Yes, their reproduction is much like a bacteria reproduces - through a process called fission.

Conclusion: Since Mitochondria cannot sustain existence, alone (thanks to no longer holding their full genome) they are dead.

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    $\begingroup$ This question seems like a (meaningless) exercise in semantics. By this logic, then my skin and heart are "dead", since they can't sustain their own existence. $\endgroup$
    – Sparhawk
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ The issue I am having is that it seems like you have gone from "Not alive" to "Is dead". Are all things that are not alive dead? Eg the sun is not alive, but I would not call it dead. A spoon is not alive, but also not dead (Also Cthulu :-P). I feel like to be dead you means be "not alive" and also "previously was alive." (whether previously alive refers to individuals or not I am not so sure.) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 3:00
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    $\begingroup$ -1. By your logic, parasites such as tapeworms (which can't survive outside their hosts) are dead. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ I do think that "sustain their own existence" is a remarkably high bar, of which I am unaware of any member of any species attaining. Humans, for instance, do not survive long in the cold vacuum of space without anything sustaining them. Most every biology text I am aware of recognizes that we live in a network, not in isolation. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 6:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Sparhawk skin and heart cannot survive on their own. The component cells need things that are made by others. And it's not just a matter of being switched off, as no cell in the human body can make vitamin C, as the gene for that has been moved out to the "host" ecosystem at large. Out genetics are no longer located within our cells, in exactly the same manner as SolarLinux points out for mitochondrea. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 15:53

I would like to expand a bit on SolarLunix's post, because the logic used in the conclusion would also mean that endosymbionts, such as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buchnera_(bacterium), who cannot survive outside their host are also "dead".

I think many of us disagree with that notion, so instead I would say that it's the fact that so many of their genes have been relocated to the nucleus that makes them organelles and thus substructures of the eukaryotic cell and thus "dead".

Ultimately though, I think it's more a matter of semantics, since you could argue that they represent an advanced stage of endosymbiosis.

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    $\begingroup$ Agreed. And if we're moved just a few miles (straight up or down) from our environment, we survive just as poorly as various endosymbionts. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 3:06
  • $\begingroup$ That's what I was saying that everyone seems to have missed.... $\endgroup$
    – SolarLunix
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 10:32
  • $\begingroup$ @user2338816 or a few thousand north or south $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 18:57

What a brilliant question for promoting a discussion. Mitochondria definitely reproduce, they maintain a better energy flow than any other part of the cell, and they maintain a very low entropy state by exploiting that energy flow. It may not be a textbook answer but being alive really is about decreasing your local entropy by exploiting a flow of energy. I suspect that mitochondria have ceased to change under the pressures of natural selection, but so what - they have been practically perfect for a billion years.


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