We cannot give the credit of “who discovered the mitochondria (singular: mitochondrion)” to just a single person because the discovery of the organelle is through a gradual process (spanning more than a century and a half) and involves the contributions of many scientists. There were those who studied its structure and there were also those who studied its function. Let us meet the people who discovered mitochondria in this article.
Early Discovery of Mitochondria (19th Century)
In 1857, the Swiss physiologist and anatomist, Albert von Kolliker described granule-like structures present in muscle cells. Other scientists during von Kolliker’s time found the granule-like structures in other cell types. Note that these scientists used simple microscopes to view the granule-like structures in the cells. These scientists also don’t know the function of these structures.
To better study the granule-like structures described by Kolliker, Richard Altman employed a dye technique to put color to the structures so that they would become more visible under a microscope. The dye technique helped Kolliker to easily identify the structures and distinguished them from other structures inside the cell. He later named the structures as the bioblasts and proposed a hypothesis saying that the bioblasts are the basic units of cell activity.
The “bioblasts” name for the granular structures was changed to mitochondria by Carl Benda in 1898. He coined the name from two greek words: “mitos” for thread and “chondros” for granule.
Von Kolliker, Altman, and Benda just started the long history of mitochondria discovery. Scientists after them elucidated the functions of mitochondria that we know today.
Discovery of Mitochondria Functions (20th Century and Beyond)
German biochemist Otto Heinrich Warburg proposed in 1912 that an enzyme located inside the cell facilitates oxygen processing (also called respiration). He demonstrated that cyanide inhibits cell respiration at the cellular level.
In 1923, entomologist David Keilin observed in an experiment that the oxidation state of a certain hemoprotein called cytochrome is changed during respiration. Cytochrome is involved in the electron transport- a pathway involved in the production of the energy-rich compound adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Keilin later discovered that cytochrome is found in the inner membrane of the mitochondrion.
It was 1929 when scientists C. H. Fiske and Y. Subbarow isolated ATP, the compound produced in the mitochondria that carries the chemical energy. The use of ATP in cellular respiration was demonstrated by H. M. Kalckar and V. A. Belitser in a process called oxidative phosphorylation: the release of phosphate from ATP to activate a protein.
Peter D. Mitchell was awarded the Nobel Prize for proposing the theory of chemiosmotics in 1978. The theory explains how the movement of ions across mitochondrial membranes is related to the production of ATP during cellular respiration.
Like Mitchell, another scientist studying the mitochondria was awarded the Nobel Prize. His name is Paul Boyer who discovered the role of the mitochondria in converting ADP to ATP.
In addition to the scientists mentioned above, there are other scientists who also contributed in the elucidation of functions of the mitochondria but they are too many to mention in this article. Research on mitochondrial function and structure continues today. Scientists are discovering more mitochondrial functions. They found out that mitochondria has a role in cell signaling, cellular differentiation, cell death, cell cycle, cell growth, and cell aging.
So Who Discovered Mitochondria?
The best answer would be THE SCIENTISTS (past and present) who in one way or the other contributed in the study of mitochondria: the powerhouse of the cell.