MELAS (mitochondrial myopathy, encephalopathy, lactic acidosis, and strokelike episodes), a maternally inherited mitochondrial disorder, has been associated with an A-->G transition at nucleotide 3243 and a T-->C transition at nucleotide 3271, both in the mitochondrial tRNA(Leu(UUR)) gene. We transferred mitochondria harboring these mutations into human cells lacking endogenous mtDNA (rho o cells), and analyzed the resulting transmitochondrial cytoplasmic hybrid (cybrid) cell lines for the relationship of genotype to phenotype. Cybrids containing high levels of mutated genomes showed decreased rates of synthesis of mitochondrial translation products, reduced respiratory chain function, and increased amounts of a novel unprocessed RNA species (RNA 19). Overall effects on mitochondrial functions were more severe for the MELAS 3243 cybrids as compared to the MELAS 3271 cybrids. These data, combined with our previous observations, suggest that RNA 19 may play an important, but as yet uncharacterized, role in the pathogenesis of this mitochondrial disorder.