The inhibition of respiratory chain activities in rat liver, rat heart and bovine heart mitochondria by the anthracycline antibiotic adriamycin was measured in order to determine the adriamycin-sensitive sites. It appeared that complex III and IV are efficiently affected such that their activities were reduced to 50% of control values at 175 +/- 25 microM adriamycin. Complex I displayed a minor sensitivity to the drug. Of the complex-I-related activities tested, only duroquinone oxidation appeared sensitive (50% inhibition at approx. 450 microM adriamycin). Electron-transfer activities catalyzed by complex II remained essentially unaltered up to high drug concentrations. Of the activities measured for this complex, only duroquinone oxidation was significantly affected. However, the adriamycin concentration required to reduce this activity to 50% exceeded 1 mM. Mitochondria isolated from rat liver, rat heart and bovine heart behaved essentially identical in their response to adriamycin. These data support the conclusion that, in these three mitochondrial systems, the major drug-sensitive sites lie in complex III and IV. Cytochrome c oxidase and succinate oxidase activity in whole mitochondria exhibited a similar sensitivity towards adriamycin, as inner membrane ghosts, suggesting that the drug has direct access to its inner membrane target sites irrespective of the presence of the outer membrane. By measuring NADH and succinate oxidase activities in the presence of exogenously added cytochrome c, it appeared that adriamycin was less inhibitory under these conditions. This suggests that adriamycin competes with cytochrome c for binding to the same site on the inner membrane, presumably cardiolipin.