Our mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) provides instructions for building vital machinery in our cells. MtDNA is inherited from our mothers, but the process of inheritance -- which is important in predicting and dealing with genetic disease -- is poorly understood. This is because mitochondrial behaviour during development (the process through which a fertilised egg becomes an independent organism) is rather complex. If a mother's egg cell begins with a mixed population of mtDNA -- say with some type A and some type B -- we usually observe hard-to-predict mtDNA differences between cells in the daughter. So if the mother's egg cell starts off with 20% type A, egg cells in the daughter could range (for example) from 10%-30% of type A, with each different cell having a different proportion of A. This increase in variability, referred to as the mtDNA bottleneck, is important for the inheritance of disease. It allows cells with higher proportions of mutant mtDNA to be removed; but also means that some cells in the next generation may contain a dangerous amount of mutant mtDNA. Crucially, how this increase in variability comes about during development is debated. Does variability increase because of random partitioning of mtDNAs at cell divisions? Is it due to the decreased number of mtDNAs per cell, increasing the magnitude of genetic drift? Or does something occur during later development to induce the variability? Without knowing this in detail, it is hard to propose therapies or make predictions addressing the inheritance of disease.
We set out to answer this question with maths! Several studies have provided data on this process by measuring the statistics of mixed mtDNA populations during development in mice. The different studies provided different interpretations of these results, proposing several different mechanisms for the bottleneck. We built a mathematical framework that was capable of modelling all the different mechanisms that had been proposed. We then used a statistical approach called approximate Bayesian computation to see which mechanism was most supported by the existing data. We identified a model where a combination of copy number reduction and random mtDNA duplications and deletions is responsible for the bottleneck. Exactly how much variability is due to each of these effects is flexible -- going some way towards explaining the existing debate in the literature. We were also able to solve the equations describing the most likely model analytically. These solutions allow us to explore the behaviour of the bottleneck in detail, and we use this ability to propose several therapeutic approaches to increase the "power" of the bottleneck, and to increase the accuracy of sampling in IVF approaches.
Our excellent experimental collaborators, lead by Joerg Burgstaller, then tested our theory by taking mtDNA measurements from a model mouse that differed from those used previously and which, could in principle have shown different behaviour. The behaviour they observed agreed very well with the predictions of our theory, providing encouraging validation that we have identified a likely mechanism for the bottleneck. New measurements also showed, interestingly, that the behaviour of the bottleneck looks similar in genetically diverse systems, providing evidence for its generality.