The most powerful machines are also the most destructive, a rule that applies even in the confines of the body’s cells. Mitochondria, the cell’s energy powerhouses, can fuel the development of many chronic and poorly understood conditions, including cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The disease process starts when environmental factors such as polluted drinking water or cigarette smoke perturb mitochondria, causing cellular levels of high-energy molecules called reactive oxygen species to spike.
Until now it has been unclear exactly how this destructive cascade unfolds. But researchers have developed an imaging technique that shows, in real time, what happens when things start going awry—a tool that could help doctors diagnose mitochondrial injuries before they have the chance to do serious cellular damage.