Fast-twitch tibialis anterior muscle of the rat was subjected to chronic low-frequency (10 Hz, 10 h daily) nerve stimulation in order to investigate the time course of changes in cytochrome-c-oxidase activity, as well as in tissue levels of specific mitochondrially and nuclear-encoded, cytochrome-c-oxidase-subunit mRNAs. Chronic stimulation induced a progressive increase in cytochrome-c-oxidase activity which was threefold elevated after 35 days. A similar increase was recorded for citrate-synthase activity. Glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase, which was studied as a glycolytic reference enzyme, moderately decreased, as did the tissue level of its corresponding mRNA. There was a parallel increase in the tissue levels of the two cytochrome-c-oxidase-subunit mRNAs over the entire stimulation time course. The extent of increase (stimulated/control) was 2.4 +/- 0.3 and 1.8 +/- 0.2 (means +/- SEM) for the mitochondrial and nuclear subunit mRNAs, respectively. This parallel increase suggested a coordinate regulation of the two subunits. The increase in cytochrome-c-oxidase activity initially corresponded to the changes at the mRNA level. However, with longer stimulation times (beyond 14 days), the increase in cytochrome-c-oxidase activity clearly exceeded that of the two mRNAs. This divergence was progressive and was interpreted to indicate that the increase in cytochrome-c-oxidase content was brought about not only by changes in the levels of the specific mRNAs, but also by alterations at the level of translation.