The Origins of Energy – from Bacteria to Mitochondria

Consider for a moment the formula for energy.

E = MC²


We all need it to power the modern lifestyles that we lead today. Imagine life without electricity, without the internet, without modern household appliances. Consider how, by taming energy, the impact that it has had on human endeavor and our progress towards being a technologically advanced civilization.


But as important as our mastery of energy is there is a bigger story to be told.


For a billion or two years ago our very distant relatives were simple cells that only had access to around a tenth of the energy that our cells have access to today. In what has been described as the most important deal on the planet, a bacteria negotiated with our ancient cellular predecessors to form a partnership. The cell would provide the bacteria with a warm, safe environment and with a constant supply of nutrients and the bacteria, in return, would supply energy in the form of ATP to power the cell.


The biggest deal on the planet. Ever.


The deal was done, and it delivered around 10 times the energy that was previously available to the cell. This one deal powered up our cells and is responsible for the incredible diversity of life that we see on planet Earth today. That cell, over a billion years ultimately became the modern cell behind the complex multicellular organism who is reading this article in this moment.

And the bacteria … it's now known as a mitochondria became is the powerpack of our cells, our cellular battery that takes the food we eat, the air we breathe and converts it all into a special molecule called adenosine triphosphate or ATP as it is more commonly called. ATP is the energy molecule that powers our cells, powers our bodies and powers our thoughts. It’s a universal energy molecule that is used by every cell on the planet including in the cells of plants, animals and insects.


ATP is made inside mitochondria in a very simple process. Just like how hydroelectric power stations generate electricity by using water to spin a turbine, our cells combine food and water to power a pump that spins a tiny nano-sized turbine that generates ATP. Your body, when you are young, makes its own weight in ATP everyday and recycles it once it is used so that it can be reused again.


Ever feel like your batteries are worn down?


Our mitochondria are now known to be integral to our health. But just like our cellphone batteries wear down over time and don’t last the full day our mitochondria, over a lifetime, wear down and become compromised. When this happens two things occur. Our cells become starved of the energy they need to operate, and the mitochondria start to leak free radicals that damage our cells.


This decline has quite a significant impact on the health of our cells because they need a constant and regular source of energy to do their main job (heart cells beating, brain cells thinking, liver cells metabolizing) and to repair and maintain themselves. Just like our cars breakdown and need to be maintained our cell’s working parts and tiny nanomachines break and need to be fixed.


This all works well when we have plenty of energy and is why children recover so quickly for illness but as we age that deficit in power means that our cells have to balance the ultimate budget - its energy budget and as available energy declines have to choose – do they keep doing their main job or do some repair and maintenance. The main thing is always the main thing so those repair jobs get deferred and while that is fine for a while over the long term that damage builds up and starts to interfere with how the cell operates.


Mitochondrial dysfunction starts to occur in our late twenties, but we don’t notice it (unless we have certain health problems), until we get into our forties and fifties and it starts to materially affect our energy levels. This is why, as we age, we all start to heal from injuries and recover from infections slower and start to accumulate cellular damage that if we are unlucky leads to disease. We even start to feel the lack of energy physically and our performance in many areas like sports, mental agility, and sleep declines. Mitochondrial dysfunction is a primary cause of cellular aging and it no matter how cleanly, how healthily we live our batteries all start to decline leading to deficits in our cell energy levels. And as mentioned above, just to make it all a little worse, we get a double damage to our cells as our mitochondria decline as they start to leak increasing levels of free radicals into our cells adding insult to injury.


Of cell pools and poor communication


Our mitochondria are also deeply integrated with two other key causes of aging. Stem cell fatigue and intercellular communication. Stem cells are special pools of cells around the body that replace old and worn-out cells. A great example is the stem cells that sit inside our bones and generate the massive amount of white blood cells that we need daily for a healthy immune system. Our white blood cells are very active and have a short life cycle needing to be replaced regularly. Over our lifetime our immune stem cells get tired and breakdown as we age in part due to the scarcity of energy caused by mitochondrial dysfunction.


Intercellular communication on the other hand describes how our body communicates not just between cell to cell but between body part to body part. It's almost like the internet or a kind of cellular social network of communication so that the right hand literally knows what the left hand is doing. Intercellular communication relies on energy to work effectively and as our mitochondria break down as we age this also becomes compromised and has an impact on our health.


Restore for more


The great news is that our understanding or mitochondrial dysfunction is leading to us finding ways to restore their function, to restore youthful levels of energy so that our cells have access to this power for much longer which has a significant and positive effect on our cells. We know now that there are specialized antioxidants that protect and restore mitochondrial membranes and key enzymes involved in the energy generation process that deplete as we age that can be restored by supplements and key polyphenols, active antioxidant compounds found in plants that can support youthful levels of mitochondrial repair and maintenance that all work together synergistically to literally tune up your cellular batteries.


And E = MC²? Perhaps it's time for a new definition … Energy = Mitochondria x Cells to the power of You


Energy = Mito x Cellsʸᵒᵘ