42 Best Mitochondria Facts For Kids

Kids in science class wearing lab coats and goggles learning about mitochondria.
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mage © Airman 1st Class Malissa Lott.

Teaching mitochondria for kids is an important element of science as part of the national curriculum.

We have put together these facts about the mitochondria, that make learning Biology straightforward and fun! Using some interesting facts about mitochondria to teach your KS2 child will make it easier to quiz them, and keep the learning process dynamic.

As well as introducing these facts to your children, using investigations and crafts to do with cells can help them remember the content. It is also a great way to make learning more fun for creative kids!

Scientist in a lab looking down a microscope.
Image © Trust "Tru" Katsande.

Who Discovered Mitochondria?

The road to discovering what we know today about the humble mitochondrion was long and complicated! Below we have found the origins you can easily explain to your children.

1. Mitochondria were first discovered in a cell in 1857 by physiologist Albert von Kolliker when he noticed the arrangement of granules in a cell were ordered in a specific way.

2. In 1886 Richard Altman called them “bioblasts” (life germs).

3. The term 'mitochondria' as they are known today was first used in 1898 by Carl Benda.

4. Very little was known about the function of mitochondria when scientists were first researching into the insides of a cell.

5. Mitochondria are thought to have been created 1.45 billion years ago, they have been found in tiny fossils of cells dating back that long ago. However, they may have existed in a time even earlier than the cell fossils we discovered!

Scientist in a lab with a pippet and test tube testing mitochondria.
Image © ThisisEngineering RAEng.

What Are Mitochondria Like?

Looks aren't everything but these important organelles do so much for the cell that we need to showcase its important features. These fun facts about mitochondria might just help your kids find their inner scientist!

Top Tip: These facts can even guide kids into crafting their own mitochondrial model (check out our guide to making a cell model for inspiration). A fluffy version could even make an adorable and quirky stuffed toy!

6. Mitochondria are brown organelles. An organelle is a small structure inside the cell, which has specific jobs.

7. On their own, they are the shape of a bean.

8. They often form networks with each other.

9. They are tiny and you can only see them through a microscope.

10. Mitochondria can quickly change shape and move around the cell depending on what they need to do.

11. Mitochondria have their own DNA so some scientists believe that they were descended from organisms who lived on their own.

12. Endosymbiosis is the process where one organism lives inside another and it works out really well for everyone- this is what happens with our mitochondria.

13. Mitochondrial DNA looks like a microscopic bicycle tire.

A cross-section diagram of mitochondria.
Image © National Human Research Institute.

What Is The Structure Of The Mitochondria?

Mitochondria has one main goal- to produce energy. Mitochondria respire to produce energy. The mitochondria do a specific kind of cellular respiration which is called aerobic respiration. The mitochondria structure needs to make this as easy as possible. This is why the structure is so important to ensure the mitochondria function properly.

14. The outer membrane gives the mitochondria a bean-like appearance and shape.

15. The outer membrane protects the cell, it is usually smooth.

16. The folds of the inner membrane are called cristae.

17. The folds of the cristae increase the surface area of the membrane; the cristae is very important for making sure the mitochondria produce lots of ATP (or adenosine triphosphate) for the cell.

18. The inner membrane also contains proteins for the electron transport chain.

19. The electron transport chain is formed when proteins form a chain on the inside of the inner membrane.

20. The electron transport chain is the part of cellular respiration that produces a lot of energy. So the inner membrane is very important to make sure the mitochondria produce a lot of energy.

Inter-Membrane Space

21. The space between the inner membrane and the outer membrane is important because the rest of the cell processes take place here. If producing energy is like a football game with all different things that need to happen to score a goal, and the parts inside the mitochondria are working together like players, then the intermembrane space is like the football pitch.

The Matrix

22.The matrix is sticky jelly spread within the mitochondria, within the inner membrane. It is also very important to make sure the mitochondria can produce a lot of energy for the cells. The matrix functions very similarly to the intermembrane space.

23.The citric acid cycle is the first stage of aerobic respiration and it takes place in the matrix within the cells.

Microscopes lined up on the worktop in a science lab.
Image © Ousa Chea.

Where Can We Find Mitochondria?

24. Mitochondria are located in the cell, but our entire body is made of cells!

25. Mitochondria are located within the eukaryotic cells of the body.

26. Within the cells, they are in a fluid called the cytoplasm.

27. There are often multiple mitochondria in one cell.

28. They are also found in plant cells.

29. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother.

30. Cells that need more energy, like the ones in your heart or muscles, contain more mitochondria.

31. Red blood cells don't have any mitochondria because they need to be able to carry as much oxygen as possible- there wouldn't be enough space!

Image from a microscope of the centre of a cell.
Image © Ousa Chea.

What Is The Purpose of Mitochondria?

There are many processes that take place within a cell that these organelles are responsible for. The overall function of the mitochondria can be summarised in three words: to produce energy.

32. Energy is needed to do so many other things such as change the glucose into the chemical called ATP so you can use it to do anything physical- scratch your head, run around, even smile!

33. Mitochondria produce the energy to control the cell cycle, which prepares the cell for division (to reproduce, a mitochondrion will divide itself into two!).

34. Energy is required for growth and cells are no different; the mitochondria control the growth of the cell.

35. Signalling is coordinating what the cells need to do and when to do them, like the director of a movie: mitochondria are involved in this too.

36. Cellular differentiation is when cells change from one type to another. Mitochondria play a role in this by being really dynamic and changing their shape to meet the demands of the cell.

37. Mitochondria cause cell death by shutting off their part that spreads the energy they produce into the cell and other cells.

Boy sat at table doing homework learning mitochondria facts.

How Do Mitochondria Produce Energy?

The step-by-step sequence of what the mitochondria do can be incredibly complicated, and where exactly the energy mitochondria produce comes from can be difficult to explain. We have summarised it into these facts for you to help teach your children:

38. Mitochondrial respiration can also be called aerobic cellular respiration.

39. A mitochondrion will use the food we eat, specifically the glucose inside that food to create energy.

40. A small amount of carbon dioxide is produced as a side-effect of cell respiration, but not enough for it to be harmful!

41. When the cell needs more energy, the mitochondria reproduce to make more of themselves so they can produce more energy to meet the demand.

42. If a cell doesn't need as much energy any more, the mitochondria will die.

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