The peptide nucleic acid (PNA)-directed PCR clamping technique was modified and applied to the detection of mitochondrial DNA mutations with low heteroplasmy. This method is extremely specific, eliminating false positives in the absence of mutant molecules, and highly sensitive, being capable of detecting mutations at the level of 0.1% of total molecules. Moreover, the reaction can be multiplexed to identify more than one mutation per reaction. Using this technique, the levels of three point mutations, the tRNA(Leu(UUA)) 3243 mutation causing mitochondrial encephalopathy, lactic acidosis and stroke-like episodes (MELAS); the tRNA(Lys) 8344 mutation causing myoclonic epilepsy and ragged red fibers (MERRF); and the nucleotide position 414 mutation adjacent to the control region promoters, were evaluated in human brain and muscle from individuals of various ages. While none of the mutations were detected in brain samples from individuals ranging in age from 23 to 93, the 414 mutation could be detected in muscle from individuals 30 years and older. These data demonstrate that the 3243 and 8344 mutations do not accumulate with age to levels greater than 0.1% in brain and muscle. By contrast, the 414 mutation accumulates with age in normal human muscle, though not in brain. The reason for the striking absence of the 414 mutation in aging brain is unknown.