We analyzed 40 pairs of breast normal/cancer tissues for the presence of mitochondrial (mt) genome instability and nuclear MSI in tumor cells. As mt, markers we used a (CA)n mt microsatellite (MS) starting at the 514-bp position of the D loop region and 4 informative MnlI sites located between the 16,108- and 16,420-bp positions of the D loop region. Nuclear microsatallite instability (MSI) was tested with 8 (CA)n MS, syntenic for the 13q chromosome arm. Moreover, we tested the spontaneous frequency of mtMSI and mt-MnlI mutations in 459 mother/descendant events. Mutations of mt-MnlI sites were found in 19 of 40 (47.5%) breast tumors, representing a 216-fold increase over the spontaneous rate in the female germline. Instability of the mtMS occurred in 17 of 40 (42.5%) breast cancers, which implies a 16-fold increase over the rate of spontaneous mutations. Nuclear MSI was found in 20 of 40 (50%) cases. In 15 of these cases the MSI was restricted to one locus, whereas in 5 instances the change of alleles was detected in 2 or 3 loci. Analysis of the correlation between mt and nuclear mutations showed no significant associations, suggesting that different systems are responsible for mt and nuclear genome instability in tumor cells. We propose that the two main mechanisms producing mtRFLP and mtMSI are damage by free radicals and error repair by the polymerase gamma, the first mechanism being a major cause of MnlI mutations and a secondary cause of mtMSI.