In most eukaryotic cells, the respiratory chain NADH dehydrogenase (Complex I) is a multimeric enzyme under dual (nuclear and mitochondrial) genetic control. Several genes encoding subunits of this enzyme have been identified in the mitochondrial genome from various organisms, but the functions of these subunits are in most part unknown. We describe here a human cell line in which the enzyme lacks the mtDNA-encoded subunit ND4 due to a frameshift mutation in the gene. In this cell line, the other mtDNA-encoded subunits fail to assemble, while at least some of the nuclear-encoded subunits involved in the redox reactions appear to be assembled normally. In fact, while there is a complete loss of NADH:Q1 oxidoreductase activity, the NADH:Fe(CN)6 oxidoreductase activity is normal. These observations provide the first clear evidence that the ND4 gene product is essential for Complex I activity and give some insights into the function and the structural relationship of this polypeptide to the rest of the enzyme. They are also significant for understanding the pathogenetic mechanism of the ND4 gene mutation associated with Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy.