The role of mtDNA and nuclear genome in human aging was examined by their intercellular transfer using skin fibroblasts and mtDNA-less HeLa cells (rho o-HeLa cells). We found in vivo age-related reductions in the activity of cytochrome c oxidase in human skin fibroblasts obtained from 16 donors of various ages (0-97 years). The abnormality in mitochondria of the aged donors was not attributable to either decrease in the copy number of mtDNA molecules or increase in the copy number of deletion mutant mtDNA molecules, but to significant decrease in overall polypeptide synthesis in the mitochondria. However, intercellular mtDNA transfer experiments showed that fibroblast mtDNA from elderly donors is functionally intact. By contrast, intercellular transfer of HeLa nuclei to fibroblasts from aged donors restored cytochrome c oxidase activity, suggesting that the age-related phenotype was nuclear recessive. However, during subsequent cultivation of these hybrids, the activity gradually reduced again, associated with gradual chromosome loss. These observations support the idea that accumulation of nuclear recessive somatic mutations, but not mtDNA mutations, is responsible for the in vivo age-related mitochondrial dysfunction observed in human skin fibroblasts.