The purpose of this study was to explore the mechanisms by which oxidative stress affects the aging process. The hypothesis that the rate of accumulation of oxidative damage to specific mitochondrial proteins is linked to the life expectancy of animals was tested in the housefly. The rate of oxygen consumption and life expectancy of the flies were experimentally altered by confining the flies in small jars, where they were unable to fly. Prevention of flight activity decreased the rate of oxygen utilization of flies and almost tripled their life span as compared to those permitted to fly. Rate of mitochondrial H(2)O(2) generation at various ages was lower in the low activity flies than in the high activity flies. Oxidative damage to mitochondrial proteins, adenine nucelotide translocase, and aconitase, detected as carbonyl modifications, was attenuated; and the loss in their functional activity occurring with age was retarded in the long-lived low activity flies as compared to the short-lived high activity flies. The two proteins were previously identified to be the only mitochondrial proteins exhibiting age-related increases in carbonylation. Results support the hypothesis that accrual of oxidative damage to specific protein targets and the consequent loss of their function may constitute a mechanism by which oxidative stress controls the aging process.