Calcification, the major cause of bioprosthetic heart valve failures, is a serious clinical problem with uncertain pathogenesis. The objectives of the present study were to define the progressive chemical and morphologic sequence of mineralization in glutaraldehyde-treated porcine aortic valve cusps implanted subcutaneously in rats and to compare the pathology and pathophysiology of calcification in subcutaneous implants with that of orthotopic valve replacements in calves. Cusps were implanted subcutaneously in 3-week-old rats for 24 hours to 18 weeks. Cuspal calcium was 114 +/- 18 micrograms/mg of dry weight (mean +/- SEM) at day 21 and 218 +/- 6 at day 56 of implantation and unchanged thereafter. The earliest mineral deposits, noted at 48 hours, were associated with devitalized porcine connective tissue cells, but by 7 days, mineral deposits also involved collagen bundles. Scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive x-ray analysis demonstrated predominant accumulation in the spongiosa with a spongiosa to fibrosa energy-dispersive x-ray analysis count ratio of calcium of 15 at 21 days. In stent-mounted glutaraldehyde-preserved porcine valves implanted in five calves as mitral replacements for 69 to 142 days, cuspal calcium was 86 micrograms/mg (mean) (range 47 to 128). Calf implants also had cell oriented and collagen calcification predominating in the valvar spongiosa. In both rat subcutaneous and calf mitral valve models, early diffuse calcific microcrystals evolved into confluent nodules that disrupted tissue architecture. It is concluded that calcification of glutaraldehyde-preserved porcine aortic valves implanted subcutaneously in rats begins within 48 hours, earliest deposits are localized to residual porcine connective tissue cells, but latter deposits also involve collagen fibrils, mineralization is most prominent in the spongiosa, the pathology of calcification in rat subcutaneous implants and calf mitral replacements is comparable, suggesting a common pathophysiology, and calcific nodule formation most likely initiates clinical features.