There is an apparent overlap between areas in the USA where the herbicide, atrazine (ATZ), is heavily used and obesity-prevalence maps of people with a BMI over 30. Given that herbicides act on photosystem II of the thylakoid membrane of chloroplasts, which have a functional structure similar to mitochondria, we investigated whether chronic exposure to low concentrations of ATZ might cause obesity or insulin resistance by damaging mitochondrial function. Sprague-Dawley rats (n = 48) were treated for 5 months with low concentrations (30 or 300 microg kg(-1) day(-1)) of ATZ provided in drinking water. One group of animals was fed a regular diet for the entire period, and another group of animals was fed a high-fat diet (40% fat) for 2 months after 3 months of regular diet. Various parameters of insulin resistance were measured. Morphology and functional activities of mitochondria were evaluated in tissues of ATZ-exposed animals and in isolated mitochondria. Chronic administration of ATZ decreased basal metabolic rate, and increased body weight, intra-abdominal fat and insulin resistance without changing food intake or physical activity level. A high-fat diet further exacerbated insulin resistance and obesity. Mitochondria in skeletal muscle and liver of ATZ-treated rats were swollen with disrupted cristae. ATZ blocked the activities of oxidative phosphorylation complexes I and III, resulting in decreased oxygen consumption. It also suppressed the insulin-mediated phosphorylation of Akt. These results suggest that long-term exposure to the herbicide ATZ might contribute to the development of insulin resistance and obesity, particularly where a high-fat diet is prevalent.