A new biochemical method for estimating the virtual number of mitochondria (mt) per cell was developed and used together with a plasmid probe to measure mt DNA/mitochondrion and mt DNA/cell. These methods were used in five cell types from four mammalian species. Mt DNA/mitochondrion was essentially constant in all cell types (mean 2.6 +/- 0.30 SE mitochondrial DNA molecules/mt). Mt DNA molecules/cell encompassed an eight-fold range between various cell types (low 220 +/- 6.2; high 1,720 +/- 162 mt DNA molecules/cell). Virtual mt number/cell ranged from 83 +/- 17 to 677 +/- 80 (SE) mt/cell in various cell types. All five mammalian virtual mitochondria contained the same genomic mass. The number of virtual mitochondria per cell and amount of mt DNA per cell appear to be closely regulated within a given cell type but differ widely from cell type to cell type.