The amount of ascorbate associated with guinea pig liver mitochondria was estimated by high-performance liquid chromatography. Incubation of mitochondria with ascorbate revealed a time-dependent and temperature-dependent accumulation of the vitamin. A steady-state level of ascorbate was obtained in the mitochondria after about 20 min of incubation at 37 degrees C, whereas no accumulation was observed at 0 degrees C. The matrix concentration of ascorbate was highly correlated to the concentration of ascorbate in the incubation medium. The initial rate of accumulation (about 7 pmol/mg protein per min at 10 degrees C) was three orders of magnitude less than for compounds that are transported across the mitochondrial inner membrane by specific carriers. Experiments with the enzyme ascorbate oxidase demonstrated that the mitochondrial membrane is also permeable to dehydroascorbate, and that the accumulated dehydroascorbate is stable in the mitochondria. There was no effect of the energy state of the mitochondrial membrane of the initial transport rate of ascorbate. Electrostatic binding of ascorbate to the membrane was excluded from experiments performed in isosmotic potassium chloride medium. Diffusion of ascorbate across the mitochondrial inner membrane accounts for the experimental findings.