Deletions in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) accumulate with age in humans without overt mitochondriopathies, but relatively limited attention has been devoted to the measurement of the total number of mtDNA molecules per cell during ageing. We have developed a precise assay that determines mtDNA levels relative to nuclear DNA using a PCR-based procedure. Quantification was performed by reference to a single recombinant plasmid standard containing a copy of each target DNA sequence (mitochondrial and nuclear). Copy number of mtDNA was determined by amplifying a short region of the cytochrome b gene (although other regions of mtDNA were demonstrably useful). Nuclear DNA content was determined by amplification of a segment of the single copy beta-globin gene. The copy number of mtDNA per diploid nuclear genome in myocardium was 6970 +/- 920, significantly higher than that in skeletal muscle, 3650 +/- 620 (P = 0.006). In both human skeletal muscle and myocardium, there was no significant change in mtDNA copy number with age (from neonates to subjects older than 80 years). This PCR-based assay not only enables accurate determination of mtDNA relative to nuclear DNA but also has the potential to quantify accurately any DNA sequence in relation to any other.