Deletions in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) are an important cause of human disease and their accumulation has been implicated in the ageing process. As mtDNA is a high copy number genome, the coexistence of deleted and wild-type mtDNA molecules within a single cell defines heteroplasmy. When deleted mtDNA molecules, driven by intracellular clonal expansion, reach a sufficiently high level, a biochemical defect emerges, contributing to the appearance and progression of clinical pathology. Consequently, it is relevant to determine the heteroplasmy levels within individual cells to understand the mechanism of clonal expansion. Heteroplasmy is reflected in a mosaic distribution of cytochrome c oxidase (COX)-deficient muscle fibers. We applied droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) to single muscle fibers collected by laser-capture microdissection (LCM) from muscle biopsies of patients with different paradigms of mitochondrial disease, characterized by the accumulation of single or multiple mtDNA deletions. By combining these two sensitive approaches, ddPCR and LCM, we document different models of clonal expansion in patients with single and multiple mtDNA deletions, implicating different mechanisms and time points for the development of COX deficiency in these molecularly distinct mitochondrial cytopathies.
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