We investigated the biochemical phenotype of the mtDNA T8993G point mutation in the ATPase 6 gene, associated with neurogenic muscle weakness, ataxia, and retinitis pigmentosa (NARP), in three patients from two unrelated families. All three carried >80% mutant genome in platelets and were manifesting clinically various degrees of the NARP phenotype. Coupled submitochondrial particles prepared from platelets capable of succinate-sustained ATP synthesis were studied using very sensitive and rapid luminometric and fluorescence methods. A sharp decrease (>95%) in the succinate-sustained ATP synthesis rate of the particles was found, but both the ATP hydrolysis rate and ATP-driven proton translocation (when the protons flow from the matrix to the cytosol) were minimally affected. The T8993G mutation changes the highly conserved residue Leu(156) to Arg in the ATPase 6 subunit (subunit a). This subunit, together with subunit c, is thought to cooperatively catalyze proton translocation and rotate, one with respect to the other, during the catalytic cycle of the F(1)F(0) complex. Our results suggest that the T8993G mutation induces a structural defect in human F(1)F(0)-ATPase that causes a severe impairment of ATP synthesis. This is possibly due to a defect in either the vectorial proton transport from the cytosol to the mitochondrial matrix or the coupling of proton flow through F(0) to ATP synthesis in F(1). Whatever mechanism is involved, this leads to impaired ATP synthesis. On the other hand, ATP hydrolysis that involves proton flow from the matrix to the cytosol is essentially unaffected.