MELAS is a mitochondrial encephalomyopathy characterized clinically by recurrent stroke-like episodes, seizures, sensorineural deafness, dementia, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and short stature. The majority of patients are heteroplasmic for a mutation (A3243G) in the tRNAleu(UUR) gene in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). In cells cultured in vitro, the mutation produces a severe mitochondrial translation defect only when the proportion of mutant mtDNAs exceeds 95% of total mtDNAs. However, most patients are symptomatic well below this threshold, a paradox that remains unexplained. We studied the relationship between the level of heteroplasmy for the mutant mtDNA and the clinical and biochemical abnormalities in a large pedigree that included 8 individuals carrying the A3243G mutation, 4 of whom were asymptomatic. Unexpectedly, we found that brain lactate, a sensitive indicator of oxidative phosphorylation dysfunction, was linearly related to the proportion of mutant mtDNAs in all individuals carrying the mutation, whether they were symptomatic or not. There was no evidence for threshold expression of the metabolic defect. These results suggest that marked tissue-specific differences may exist in the pathogenic expression of the A3243G mutation and explain why a neurological phenotype can be observed at relatively low levels of heteroplasmy.