We have cloned the major noncoding region of human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from 11 human placentas. Partial nucleotide sequences of five of these clones have been determined and they share a maximum of 900 bp around the origin of H-strand replication. Alignment of these sequences with others previously determined has revealed a striking pattern of nucleotide substitutions and insertion/deletion events. The level of sequence divergence significantly exceeds the reported estimates of divergence in coding regions. Two particularly hypervariable regions have also been defined. More than 96% of the base changes are transitions, and length alterations have occurred exclusively by addition or deletion of mono-or dinucleotide segments within serially repeating stretches. This region of the mitochondrial genome, which contains the initiation sites for replication and transcription, is the least conserved among species with respect to both sequence and length (Anderson et al., 1981; Walberg and Clayton, 1981). Despite this overall lack of primary sequence conservation, several consistencies appear among the available mammalian mtDNA sequences within this region. Between species, a conserved linear array of characteristic stretches exists which nonetheless differ in primary sequence. Among humans, several conserved blocks of nucleotides appear within domains deleted from the mtDNA of other species. These observations are consistent with both a species-specificity of nucleotide sequence, and a preservation of the necessary genetic functions among species. This provides a model for the evolution of protein-nucleic acid interactions in mammalian mitochondria.