Mitochondria Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Lauren Scott

Lauren has a Master's degree in special education and has taught for more than 10 years.

This science lesson will give you an overview of mitochondria, which act as the powerhouses of cells. You will learn about their origins, their structure, and the important roles they play inside cells.

Introduction to Mitochondria

You may already know that you need to eat in order to have energy. The food you ingest gets broken down inside your digestive system so it can be used by your body. But, where does it go from there? How do the cells in your body use that digested food? They get the fuel they need from a small organelle, or cell part, called a mitochondrion. The plural form of this word is 'mitochondria'.

The mitochondria in these mouse cells are shown in green.

Mitochondria are found inside the cells of animals, plants, and fungi. Some cells have lots of mitochondria, and others do not. It depends on how much energy the cells need.

Researchers have found that mitochondria used to be a type of primitive, free-living bacteria, but were somehow 'swallowed' by these larger cells.

Basic Structure

Mitochondria are tiny, elongated structures. They have an outer membrane that protects them. Mitochondria also have a folded inner membrane (the part of the image below labeled 'cristae') that creates a good workspace for energy production.

Structure of Mitochondria

Power Up!

Mitochondria are often called the powerhouses of cells. This is because they take larger molecules, like carbohydrates and fatty acids, and break them down to produce energy the cells can use. That energy source is called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP.

Mitochondrial DNA

Each of our cells has a nucleus, which is like the brain of the cell. The nucleus is packed with molecules of DNA, which determine how our tissues and organs develop and determine traits like eye color and height. Mitochondria are special because they contain their own DNA, which is called mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA. mtDNA tells the cell how to produce ATP and also directs the early stages of protein formation.

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