“The powerhouse of the cell” is how my biology professor described the microscopic pill-shaped organelle: the mitochondrion. For bio-disinclined readers, organelles are the tiny subunits (like the heart and lungs of our bodies) that float around inside a cell and enable it to function. For the extremely bio-disinclined, they are like the fruit bits that float around inside a Jell-O mold. The mitochondrion is responsible for providing the necessary energy for cell activity. Without mitochondria, most cells couldn’t function; and if cells couldn’t function, we wouldn’t exist.

Now, until last week, this small bit of biology trivia remained undisturbed for nearly ten years in the recesses of my mind. That is until I stumbled across an article in the New York Times’ Well Blog which discussed the impact that exercise has on keeping humans young. Coincidentally, this same article caught Marta's attention too. In short, the article cites new research published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that exercise reduced or eliminated almost every detrimental effect of aging in mice which had been genetically programmed to grow old at an accelerated pace.

Science has shown that as we age, our bodies begin to lose their ability to fix cells as effectively as they once did. And, also with age, the mitochondria in our cells develop genetic mutations that cause them to either degenerate or kick the bucket. With our diminished ability to fix these mutations, the mitochondria die and thus our cells die. As you can imagine, a graveyard of dead cells taking over where living cells once roamed is a cause for alarm.

The researchers – using mice – set up two test groups to show how exercise might impact our ability to fix cells even into old age. Both groups of mice had a mutation that completely inhibited their ability to repair cells (how this scenario came to be is not explained but I picture Dr. Moreau lurking in the shadows laughing sinisterly). One group of mice exercised, while the other did not.  At eight months, the sedentary mice were bald, frail and dying, while the running rodents had dark fur and nearly all of their muscle mass and brain volume.

Although both groups of mice still had the mutation at the end of the test, the exercising group had functioning mitochondria - including in cells of the muscles and body systems that were not engaged during exercise. How and why exercise allows the cells to function in this way has not yet been determined, but the conclusion still holds: exercise helps keep us young.

Intrigued by the impact that mitochondria have on aging, I began researching how the beauty industry is endeavoring to exploit these miniature power plants. The depth of research and theories about mitochondria in relation to the field of anti-aging astounded me.

The mitochondrial theory of aging is not new. Dating back to the early 1970s, scientists have wrestled with the role of mitochondria in the aging process. Specifically, Doctor Denham Harman proposed the idea of free radicals – oxidative byproducts of cells - that act as gene destroyers. (Read more in TIA’s article on free radicals.)  Extrapolated in the context of the mitochondria, these free radicals are what lead to the genetic mutations that eventually ruin our mitochondria and cause us to age. Detractors of this theory point to the relatively circumstantial evidence backing it and the low rate of actual mutation as signs that there are many other more significant factors that trigger aging.

In the midst of the the back-and-forth debate surrounding mitochondria, scientists have been trying to unlock the powers of this mysterious organelle. Technological advances in microscopy and new fluorescent dyes have facilitated study of the structural and behavioral dynamics of mitochondria within living cells. In the June 2010 edition of the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, scientists presented findings of active molecules that can impact the mitochondrial functions and drew attention to their significance in skin aging. The study also discussed the potential viability of mitochondria-targeted methods to improve the health of our skin as we age.

Riding the wave of this research, anti-aging personal care manufacturers are trying to get a piece of the action and reap the rewards. In December 2010 two oral presentations were made by Nu Skin – an anti-aging company - at the First World Congress on Targeting Mitochondria: Strategies, Innovation and Clinical Applications in Berlin. Nu Skin’s scientists claimed that – through their proprietary ageLOC technology – they successfully identified groups of genes and multiple genetic pathways that play a role in the complex process of aging. Along with their research partners, Nu Skin not only identified multiple genes that affect mitochondrial function, but also validated natural ingredients that have a positive outcome on these genes.

Could the next big thing in anti-aging stem from these breakthroughs in mitochondria science? As we continue to study and understand the microcosm of our bodies, mitochondria will certainly be at the forefront.  But for now, we are left to wonder and hope that these tiny gelatinous fruit bits will one day turn back time.