To obtain information on the extent of random nucleotide changes in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from different organs of young adult and senescent Fischer 344 rats, the temperature of thermal denaturation (tm) was measured in (1) the native mtDNA cut at a single SstI site and (2) the reannealed duplexes formed after the initial melting of the mtDNA sample. No change was found between the two tm values in either young or senescent mtDNA, suggesting that the overall mismatch in nucleotide sequence in these samples was below the resolution of the method estimated at about 0.2%. In another experiment, mtDNA samples from young adult or senescent BALB/c mouse liver were digested with EcoRI, denatured and allowed to reanneal. The duplexes formed by the 14-kb EcoRI fragment were analyzed in randomly taken electron micrographs for the occurrence of mismatched segments. About 1.8% of reconstituted duplexes in adult mtDNA and 11% of those in senescent mtDNA contained small loops or knobs suggestive of deletions/additions of about 400 +/- 150 nucleotides. These data correspond to about 1% of the native mtDNA population in adult liver and about 5% in senescent liver having deleted/inserted segments. Although deletions/insertions may occur at variable sites, their distribution appears to be non-random. These findings suggest that small sequence rearrangements, which have been observed previously in unicircular dimers of mouse and human mtDNA, occur also in monomeric mtDNA from normal tissues and accumulate with aging.