Complex I is the largest of the mitochondrial respiratory chain proteins, and contains subunits encoded by both mitochondrial and nuclear genomes. Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy has been clearly linked to mutations of mitochondrial DNA complex I genes, and variable complex I functional defects have been reported. We have confirmed an approximate 60% defect in mitochondrial NADH CoQ1 reductase activity in cultured fibroblasts bearing the 3460-bp G to A mutation within the ND1 gene. However complex I-linked ATP synthesis was found to be normal in these fibroblasts. A 60% rotenone-induced decrease in complex I activity was shown to reduce ATP synthesis in normal fibroblasts, indicating that this level of complex I activity was below the threshold required to affect ATP synthesis. Although 3460 LHON mitochondria were less sensitive to rotenone inhibition, this did not explain the decreased complex I activity as the rotenone insensitive activity was not increased, nor did the inhibitor diphenyleneiodonium inhibit the NADH CoQ1 reductase activity to a greater extent. Decreased NADH cytochrome c reductase activity in cybrids homoplasmic for the 3460 LHON mtDNA mutation confirmed that the decrease in complex I activity was not specific to the assay used and was not caused by inhibitory effects of ubiquinone analogues used in the NADH CoQ1 reductase assay. These findings have important implications for our understanding of complex I dysfunction in the pathogenesis of 3460 Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy.