Plant cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) results from incompatibilities between the organellar and nuclear genomes and prevents self pollination, enabling hybrid crop breeding to increase yields. The Wild Abortive CMS (CMS-WA) has been exploited in the majority of 'three-line' hybrid rice production since the 1970s, but the molecular basis of this trait remains unknown. Here we report that a new mitochondrial gene, WA352, which originated recently in wild rice, confers CMS-WA because the protein it encodes interacts with the nuclear-encoded mitochondrial protein COX11. In CMS-WA lines, WA352 accumulates preferentially in the anther tapetum, thereby inhibiting COX11 function in peroxide metabolism and triggering premature tapetal programmed cell death and consequent pollen abortion. WA352-induced sterility can be suppressed by two restorer-of-fertility (Rf) genes, suggesting the existence of different mechanisms to counteract deleterious cytoplasmic factors. Thus, CMS-related cytoplasmic-nuclear incompatibility is driven by a detrimental interaction between a newly evolved mitochondrial gene and a conserved, essential nuclear gene.