Cyclosporine A (CsA) is a potent immunosuppressant used to decrease organ rejection after transplantation surgery. Reported limitations to use of CsA have been hepatotoxicity and nephrotoxicity. Additionally, exercise capacity is much less than expected following transplantation even if arterial oxygen transport capacity is repaired. Purposes of the present study were to determine the effects of CsA on skeletal muscle mitochondrial respiration in vitro and to determine the site of the CsA skeletal muscle mitochondrial lesion. Mitochondria were isolated from rat hind limb muscle homogenates after differential centrifugation. Mitochondrial respiration was determined using a Rank oxygen polarograph at 37 degrees C in a sucrose and mannitol respiration medium. CsA inhibited maximal respiration (ADP stimulated) in the presence of succinate and rotenone by 18.3% and in the presence of malate and pyruvate by 34.7%. CsA decreased the rate of uncoupled respiration (addition of carbonyl cyanide p-trifluoromethozyphenylhydrazone) by 19.6% and 32.0% for succinate and rotenone, or pyruvate plus malate, respectively. No significant effect of CsA on ADP/O for either substrate was observed. We conclude that CsA inhibits maximal coupled and uncoupled skeletal muscle mitochondrial respiration in vitro. Moreover, although the effects of CsA were greater on electron flux through Complex I, mitochondrial lesions caused by CsA were not specific to either Complex I or Complex II of the electron transport chain (ETC). Poor exercise performance despite adequate arterial oxygenation and systemic and regional oxygen deliveries in transplant patients may be attributed, in part, to the effects of immunosuppressive therapy on ETC capacity of skeletal muscle mitochondria.