A detailed comparative study of the regions surrounding the origin of replication in vertebrate mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has revealed a number of interesting properties. This region, called the D-loop-containing region, can be divided into three domains. The left (L) and right (R) domains, which have a low G content and contain the 5' and the 3' D-loop ends, respectively, are highly variable for both base sequence and length. They, however, contain thermodynamically stable secondary structures which include the conserved sequence blocks called CSB-1 and TAS which are associated with the start and stop sites, respectively, for D-loop strand synthesis. We have found that a "mirror symmetry" exists between the CSB-1 and TAS elements, which suggests that they can act as specific recognition sites for regulatory, probably dimeric, proteins. Long, statistically significant repeats are found in the L and R domains. Between the L and R domains we observed in all mtDNA sequences a region with a higher G content which was apparently free of complex secondary structure. This central domain, well preserved in mammals, contains an open reading frame of variable length in the organisms considered. The identification of common features well preserved in evolution despite the high primary structural divergence of the D-loop-containing region of vertebrate mtDNA suggests that these properties are of prime importance for the mitochondrial processes that occur in this region and may be useful for singling out the sites on which one should operate experimentally in order to discover functionally important elements.