Mitochondrial transcription factor A (TFAM) stimulates transcription from mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) promoters in vitro and in organello. To investigate whether changes of TFAM levels also modulate transcription and replication in situ, the protein was transiently overexpressed in cultured cells. Mitochondrial mRNAs were significantly elevated at early time points, when no expansion of the TFAM pool was yet observed, but were decreased when TFAM levels had doubled, resemb-ling in vitro results. HEK cells contain about 35 molecules of TFAM per mtDNA. High levels of TFAM were not associated with increases of full-length mtDNA, but nucleic acid species sensitive to RNAse H increased. Stimulation of transcription was more evident when TFAM was transiently overexpressed in cells pre-treated with ethidium bromide (EBr) having lowered mtDNA, TFAM and mitochondrial transcript levels. EBr rapidly inhibited mtDNA transcription, while decay of mtDNA was delayed and preferentially slowly migrating, relaxed mtDNA species were depleted. In conclusion, we show that transcription of mtDNA is submaximal in cultured cells and that a subtle increase of TFAM within the matrix is sufficient to stimulate mitochondrial transcription. Thus, this protein meets all criteria for being a key factor regulating mitochondrial transcription in vivo, but other factors are necessary for increasing mtDNA copy number, at least in cultured cells.