The mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation system consists of five multimeric enzymes (complexes I-V). NADH dehydrogenase or complex I (CI) is affected in most of the mitochondrial diseases and in some neurodegenerative disorders. We have studied the physiological consequences of a partial CI inhibition at the cellular level. We used a genetic model (40% CI-inhibited human-ape xenomitochondrial cybrids) and a drug-induced model (0-100% CI-inhibited cells using different concentrations of rotenone). We observed a quantitative correlation between the level of CI impairment and cell respiration, cell growth, free radical production, lipid peroxidation, mitochondrial membrane potential, and apoptosis. We showed that cell death was quantitatively associated with free radical production rather than with a decrease in respiratory chain function. The results obtained with human xenomitochondrial cybrid cells were compatible with those observed in rotenone-induced 40% CI-inhibited cells. At high concentrations (5-6-fold higher than the concentration necessary for 100% CI inhibition), rotenone showed a second toxic effect at the level of microtubule assembly, which also led to apoptosis. The correlation found among all the parameters studied helped clarify the physiological consequences of partial CI inhibitions at the cellular level.