Studies reported here were undertaken to gain greater molecular insight into the complex structure of mitochondrial ATP synthase (F(0)F(1)) and its relationship to the enzyme's function and motor-related properties. Significantly, these studies, which employed N-terminal sequence, mass spectral, proteolytic, immunological, and functional analyses, led to the following novel findings. First, at the top of F(1) within F(0)F(1), all six N-terminal regions derived from alpha + beta subunits are shielded, indicating that one or more F(0) subunits forms a "cap." Second, at the bottom of F(1) within F(0)F(1), the N-terminal region of the single delta subunit and the C-terminal regions of all three alpha subunits are shielded also by F(0). Third, and in contrast, part of the gamma subunit located at the bottom of F(1) is already shielded in F(1), indicating that there is a preferential propensity for interaction with other F(1) subunits, most likely delta and epsilon. Fourth, and consistent with the first two conclusions above that specific regions at the top and bottom of F(1) are shielded by F(0), further proteolytic shaving of alpha and beta subunits at these locations eliminates the capacity of F(1) to couple a proton gradient to ATP synthesis. Finally, evidence was obtained that the F(0) subunit called "F(6)," unique to animal ATP synthases, is involved in shielding F(1). The significance of the studies reported here, in relation to current views about ATP synthase structure and function in animal mitochondria, is discussed.