The chloroplast genomes of most higher plants contain two giant open reading frames designated ycf1 and ycf2. In tobacco, ycf1 potentially specifies a protein of 1901 amino acids. The putative gene product of the ycf2 reading frame is a protein of 2280 amino acids. In an attempt to determine the functions of ycf1 and ycf2, we have constructed several mutant alleles for targeted disruption and/or deletion of these two reading frames. The mutant alleles were introduced into the tobacco plastid genome by biolistic chloroplast transformation to replace the corresponding wild-type alleles by homologous recombination. Chloroplast transformants were obtained for all constructs and tested for their homoplastomic state. We report here that all transformed lines remained heteroplastomic even after repeated cycles of regeneration under high selective pressure. A balanced selection was observed in the presence of the antibiotic spectinomycin, resulting in maintenance of a fairly constant ratio of wild-type versus transformed genome copies. Upon removal of the antibiotic and therewith release of the selective pressure, sorting out towards the wild-type plastid genome occurred in all transplastomic lines. These findings suggest that ycf1 and ycf2 are functional genes and encode products that are essential for cell survival. The two reading frames are thus the first higher plant chloroplast genes identified as being indispensable.