Cellular injury induced by reperfusion after myocardial ischemia is manifested by striking mitochondrial damage as well as other hallmarks such as contraction band necrosis. Calcium has been implicated as a mediator of irreversible cellular injury in several systems. To identify other potential mediators of the mitochondrial injury associated with reperfusion, interactions between inorganic phosphate, oxygen, and mitochondria harvested from rabbit hearts were evaluated in vitro. Mitochondria exhibited rapid inactivation of oxidative phosphorylation after preincubation at 25 degrees C when phosphate and oxygen were present. Inactivation was partially but not completely precluded by EDTA, EGTA, magnesium, diltiazem, or ruthenium red, results in concert with findings of others suggesting involvement of a deleterious influx of calcium into mitochondria; exogenous calcium enhanced inactivation. However, the present data indicate that inactivation is prevented by incubation of mitochondria in the absence of oxygen, and demonstrate for the first time that injury elicited by phosphate is dependent on oxygen at physiological concentrations either because calcium and/or phosphate influx is linked to aerobic metabolism or because oxygen exerts deleterious effects on mitochondria, which may render them particularly susceptible to calcium influx. Since intracellular inorganic phosphate concentration increases markedly with ischemia, reperfusion with oxygenated medium may paradoxically augment mitochondrial injury in this setting. Thus, in the presence of increased intracellular concentrations of calcium and phosphate induced by ischemia, subsequent reestablishment of physiological levels of intracellular oxygen tension may promote mitochondrial damage, which is known to increase with reperfusion.