Over the last two decades, the mutation of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has emerged as a major cause of inherited human disease. The disorders present clinically in at least 1 in 10,000 adults, but pathogenic mutations are found in approximately 1 in 200 of the background population. Mitochondrial DNA is maternally inherited and there can be marked phenotypic variability within the same family. Heteroplasmy is a significant factor and environmental toxins also appear to modulate the phenotype. Although genetic and biochemical studies have provided part of the explanation, a comprehensive understanding of the incomplete penetrance of these diseases is lacking--both at the population and family levels. Here, we review the potential role of epigenetic factors in the pathogenesis of mtDNA diseases and the contribution that epidemiological approaches can make to improve our understanding in this area. Despite being previously dismissed, there is an emerging evidence that mitochondria contain the machinery required to epigenetically modify mtDNA expression. In addition, the increased production of reactive oxygen species seen in several mtDNA diseases could lead to the epigenetic modification of the nuclear genome, including chromatin remodelling and alterations to DNA methylation and microRNA expression, thus contributing to the diverse pathophysiology observed in this group of diseases. These observations open the door to future studies investigating the role of mtDNA methylation in human disease.
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