In our study, nitrofurantoin (NF) and nitrofurazone (NZ) inhibited respiration of isolated mouse (C57B/6J, adult, male) liver mitochondria. Other aromatic nitro compounds, nitroimidazole, metronidazole, and p-nitrobenzoic acid, did not have any significant effect. The primary site of activity for NF was complex I NADH-ubiquinone oxidoreductase mediated respiration, since only complex I substrates, glutamate, beta-hydroxybutyrate, and alpha-ketoglutarate-mediated respiration were decreased. Respiration supported by succinate, a complex II substrate, was not affected by any of the compounds. NF at a concentration of 50 microM decreased state 3 and dinitrophenol-uncoupled respiration to 28 +/- 1 and 25 +/- 5% of control, respectively, of mitochondria oxidizing glutamate. Studies with mitoplasts oxidizing glutamate showed that NF inhibited both state 3 and 4 respiration. The inhibition of state 3 was prevented by the simultaneous addition of superoxide dismutase (240 micrograms/ml) and catalase (200 micrograms/ml). These results suggest that the mitochondrion, in particular complex I of the electron transport system, is a target for NF toxicity. The effect on respiration may be mediated by NF redox cycling and the generation of reactive oxygen intermediates resulting in the interference of electron flow.