Mitochondrial Cristae: Definition & Function

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nicholas Gauthier
The mitochondrial inner membrane carries out the electron transport chain, an important step in releasing energy from simple food molecules within the cell. Learn about the membrane structures called cristae and how they enhance the membrane's ability to function.

What Are Mitochondrial Cristae?

Mitochondrial cristae are folds of the mitochondrial inner membrane that provide an increase in the surface area. This allows a greater space for processes that happen across this membrane. The electron transport chain and chemiosmosis are the processes which help produce ATP in the final steps of cellular respiration. The following picture is the mitochondrion, showing the inner membrane, including the cristae:

Function of Mitochondrial Cristae

Before we can explain the functioning of the crista (plural = cristae), we need to revisit what a mitochondrion does. The mitochondrion is the cellular organelle where cellular respiration takes place. Cellular respiration is the process that creates chemical energy in the form of ATP from simple food molecules. These food molecules, particularly glucose, are first broken down in the cytosol outside the mitochondrion during glycolysis.

After glycolysis, the remnants of the glucose molecules make it into the mitochondria. This begins aerobic cellular respiration. First, the citric acid cycle takes place in the mitochondrial matrix; this releases a few ATP and creates NADH and FADH2 electron carrier molecules that get passed along to the next stage, the electron transport chain.

The electron transport chain uses electrons from NADH and FADH2. These electrons are passed along by proteins embedded within the membrane and produce molecules of H2O. H+ ions (protons) from these carriers are shuttled 'across' the inner membrane and into the inter-membrane space between the inner and outer mitochondrial membranes.

The buildup of H+ ions in the inter-membrane space creates a proton potential. During chemiosmosis, the protons funnel through an ATP synthase protein in the inner membrane. As they do, the ATP synthase spins to create ATP from ADP and phosphate. Thus, the proton potential provides the energy for making ATP.

Cristae are folds of the inner mitochondrial membrane. The electron transport chain and chemiosmosis takes place on this membrane as part of cellular respiration to create ATP and can be seen in the diagram:

The cristae increase the surface area of the inner membrane, allowing for faster production of ATP because there are more places to perform the process.

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