A novel heteroplasmic 7587T-->C mutation in the mitochondrial genome which changes the initiation codon of the gene encoding cytochrome c oxidase subunit II (COX II), was found in a family with mitochondrial disease. This T-->C transition is predicted to change the initiating methionine to threonine. The mutation load was present at 67% in muscle from the index case and at 91% in muscle from the patient's clinically affected son. Muscle biopsy samples revealed isolated COX deficiency and mitochondrial proliferation. Single-muscle-fiber analysis revealed that the 7587C copy was at much higher load in COX-negative fibers than in COX-positive fibers. After microphotometric enzyme analysis, the mutation was shown to cause a decrease in COX activity when the mutant load was >55%-65%. In fibroblasts from one family member, which contained >95% mutated mtDNA, there was no detectable synthesis or any steady-state level of COX II. This new mutation constitutes a new mechanism by which mtDNA mutations can cause disease-defective initiation of translation.