Mitochondria generate oxygen-derived free radicals that damage mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) as well as nuclear DNA and in turn promote carcinogenesis. The mtDNA G10398A polymorphism alters the structure of Complex I in the mitochondrial electron transport chain, an important site of free radical production. This polymorphism is associated with several neurodegenerative disorders. We hypothesized that the 10398A allele is also associated with breast cancer susceptibility. African mitochondria harbor the 10398A allele less frequently than Caucasian mitochondria, which predominantly carry this allele. Mitochondrial genotypes at this locus were therefore determined in two separate populations of African-American women with invasive breast cancer and in controls. A preliminary study at Vanderbilt University (48 cases, 54 controls) uncovered an association between the 10398A allele and invasive breast cancer in African-American women, [odds ratio (OR), 2.90; 95% confidence interval (95% CI), 0.61-18.3; P = 0.11]. We subsequently validated this finding in a large, population-based, case-control study of breast cancer, the Carolina Breast Cancer Study at the University of North Carolina (654 cases, 605 controls). African-American women in this study with the 10398A allele had a significantly increased risk of invasive breast cancer (OR, 1.60; 95% CI, 1.10-2.31; P = 0.013). The 10398A allele remained an independent risk factor after adjustment for other well-accepted breast cancer risk factors. No association was detectable in white women (879 cases, 760 controls; OR, 1.03; 95% CI, 0.81-1.31; P = 0.81). This study provides novel epidemiologic evidence that the mtDNA 10398A allele influences breast cancer susceptibility in African-American women. mtDNA polymorphisms may be underappreciated factors in breast carcinogenesis.