Approximately two billion people, mainly women and children, are iron deficient. Two studies examined the effects of iron deficiency and supplementation on rats. In study 1, mitochondrial functional parameters and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) damage were assayed in iron-deficient (< or =5 microg/day) and iron-normal (800 microg/day) rats and in both groups after daily high-iron supplementation (8,000 microg/day) for 34 days. This dose is equivalent to the daily dose commonly given to iron-deficient humans. Iron-deficient rats had lower liver mitochondrial respiratory control ratios and increased levels of oxidants in polymorphonuclear-leukocytes, as assayed by dichlorofluorescein (P < 0.05). Rhodamine 123 fluorescence of polymorphonuclear-leukocytes also increased (P < 0.05). Lowered respiratory control ratios were found in daily high-iron-supplemented rats regardless of the previous iron status (P < 0.05). mtDNA damage was observed in both iron-deficient rats and rats receiving daily high-iron supplementation, compared with iron-normal rats (P < 0.05). Study 2 compared iron-deficient rats given high doses of iron (8,000 microg) either daily or every third day and found that rats given iron supplements every third day had less mtDNA damage on the second and third day after the last dose compared to daily high iron doses. Both inadequate and excessive iron (10 x nutritional need) cause significant mitochondrial malfunction. Although excess iron has been known to cause oxidative damage, the observation of oxidant-induced damage to mitochondria from iron deficiency has been unrecognized previously. Untreated iron deficiency, as well as excessive-iron supplementation, are deleterious and emphasize the importance of maintaining optimal iron intake.