Expression of human cytochrome c oxidase (COX) subunits was examined at fetal (20-28 weeks) and adult state by Northern blot hybridization with mRNA from liver, heart, skeletal muscle, and intestine. The data were related to COX and citrate synthase activities and to immunodetected COX subunits (II/III, IV, VIIaH). In liver little changes of COX transcripts are observed from fetal to adult state. In contrast, in heart and skeletal muscle all transcripts of COX subunits increase between 2-20-fold, when related to the amount of 28S rRNA. In fetal heart and skeletal muscle the relative amounts of the liver-type transcripts of subunit VIa were 30% and 25% from total VIa transcripts (VIaL+VIaH), respectively, but decrease to only 2-5% at adult state. The liver-type transcripts of subunit VIIa occur to 50% in fetal heart and skeletal muscle, which remained unchanged in adult heart and decrease to 5-8% in adult skeletal muscle. The results clearly indicate a switch of gene expression in heart and skeletal muscle during development, from the liver type to the heart/muscle type of subunit VIa (and partly VIIa).