End-stage renal disease (ESRD) is associated with enhanced oxidative stress. This disease state provides a unique system for investigating the deleterious effect of exogenous sources of free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). To test the hypothesis that uremic milieu might cause more severe damage to mtDNA, we investigated the prevalence and abundance of mtDNA deletions in the skeletal muscles of ESRD patients. The results showed that the frequencies of occurrence of the 4977 bp and 7436 bp deletions of mtDNA in the muscle tissues of the older ESRD patients were higher than those of the younger patients. The frequency of occurrence of the 4977 bp-deleted mtDNA in the muscle was 33.3% for the patients in the age group of < 40 years, 66.6% in the 41-60-year-old group, 100% in the 61-80-year-old group, and 100% in patients >80 years of age, respectively. Only 22% of the normal aged controls carried the 4977 bp mtDNA deletion, whereas 77% (17/22) of the ESRD patients exhibited the mtDNA deletion. Using a semiquantitative PCR method, we determined the proportion of the 4977 bp-deleted mtDNA from the muscles that had been confirmed to harbor the deletion. We found that the proportions of the 4977 bp-deleted mtDNA in the muscle were significantly higher than those of the aged matched controls. Using long-range PCR techniques, a distinctive array of mtDNA deletions was demonstrated in the muscle of uremic patients. In summary, we found diverse and multiple mtDNA deletions in the skeletal muscles of ESRD patients. These deletions are more prevalent and abundant in ESRD patients than those found in normal populations. Accumulation of uremic toxins and impaired free radical scavenging systems may be responsible for the increased oxidative stress in ESRD patients. Such stress may result in oxidative damage and aging-associated mutation of the mitochondrial genome.