Long chain free fatty acids (FFA) exert, according to their actual concentration, different effects on the energy conserving system of mitochondria. Sub-micromolar concentrations of arachidonic acid (AA) rescue DeltapH-dependent depression of the proton pumping activity of the bc1 complex. This effect appears to be due to a direct interaction of AA with the proton-input mouth of the pump. At micromolar concentrations FFA increase the proton conductance of the inner membrane acting as protonophores. FFA can act as natural uncouplers, causing a mild uncoupling, which prevents reactive oxygen species production in the respiratory resting state. When Ca(2+)-loaded mitochondria are exposed to micromolar concentrations of FFA, the permeability of the inner membrane increases, resulting in matrix swelling, rupture of the outer membrane and release of intermembrane pro-apoptotic proteins. The characteristics of AA-induced swelling appear markedly different in mitochondria isolated from heart or liver. While in the latter it presents the canonical features of the classical permeability transition (PT), in heart mitochondria substantial differences are observed concerning CsA sensitivity, DeltaPsi dependence, reversibility by BSA and specificity for the activating divalent cation. In heart mitochondria, the AA-dependent increase of the inner membrane permeability is affected by ANT ligands such as adenine nucleotides and atractyloside. AA apparently causes a Ca2+-mediated conversion of ANT from a translocator to a channel system. Upon diamide treatment of heart mitochondria, the Ca2+/AA-induced CsA insensitive channel is converted into the classical PT pore. The relevance of these observations in terms of tissue-specific components of the putative PTP and heart ischemic and post-ischemic process is discussed.