Deletions of muscle mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) have recently been found in patients with mitochondrial myopathy. However, as most of the described cases were sporadic, and individual deletions involved different portions of mtDNA, the mechanism(s) producing the molecular lesions, as well as their mode of transmission, remain unclear. By studying families with mtDNA heteroplasmy, valuable information can be obtained about the role of inheritable factors in the pathogenesis of these disorders. We have studied four members of a family with autosomal dominant mitochondrial myopathy. Multiple deletions, involving the same portion of muscle mtDNA, were identified in all patients. Sequence analysis of the mutant mtDNAs, performed after DNA amplification by the polymerase-chain reaction showed that all the deletions start within a 12-nucleotide stretch at the 5' end of the D-loop region, a site of active communication between the nucleus and the mtDNA. The data indicate that a mutation of a nuclear-coded protein can destroy the integrity of the mitochondrial genome in a specific, heritable way.