We have studied the segregation and manifestations of the tRNA(Lys) A-->G(8344) mutation of mtDNA. Three unrelated patients with myoclonus epilepsy and ragged-red fibers (MERRF) syndrome were investigated, along with 30 of their maternal relatives. Mutated mtDNA was not always found in the offspring of women carrying the tRNA(Lys) mutation. Four women had 10%-33% of mutated mtDNA in lymphocytes, and no mutated mtDNA was found in 7 of their 14 investigated children. The presence of mutated mtDNA was excluded at a level of 3:1,000. Five women had a proportion of 43%-73% mutated mtDNA in lymphocytes, and mutated mtDNA was found in all their 12 investigated children. This suggests that the risk for transmission of mutated mtDNA to the offspring increases if high levels are present in the mother and that, above a threshold level of 35%-40%, it is very likely that transmission will occur to all children. The three patients with MERRF syndrome had, in muscle, both 94%-96% mutated mtDNA and biochemical and histochemical evidence of a respiratory-chain dysfunction. Four relatives had a proportion of 61%-92% mutated mtDNA in muscle, and biochemical measurements showed a normal respiratory-chain function in muscle in all cases. These findings suggest that > 92% of mtDNA with the tRNA(Lys) mutation in muscle is required to cause a respiratory-chain dysfunction that can be detected by biochemical methods. There was a positive correlation between the levels of mtDNA with the tRNA(Lys) mutation in lymphocytes and the levels in muscle, in all nine investigated cases. The levels of mutated mtDNA were higher in muscle than in lymphocytes in all cases. In two of the patients with MERRF syndrome, muscle specimens were obtained at different times. In both cases, biochemical measurements revealed a deteriorating respiratory-chain function, and in one case a progressive increase in the amount of cytochrome c oxidase-deficient muscle fibers was found.