Mitochondria may be primary targets of free radical damage associated with aging. We have found that mitochondrial glutathione is markedly oxidized with aging in rats and mice. The oxidized to reduced glutathione ratio rises with aging in the liver, kidney, and brain. The magnitude of these changes is much higher than that previously found in whole cells of any species previously studied. In the liver, this ratio (expressing GSSG as a percent of GSH) changed from 0.77 +/- 0.19% (n=5) in young rats to 2.47 +/- 1.25% (n=5) in old ones, i.e., 320% of the controls. In the brain and kidney, values for old rats were, respectively, 600 and 540% higher than those of young rats. A marked oxidation of mitochondrial glutathione also occurred in mice. Aging also caused an increase in 8-oxo-7,8-dihydro-2'-deoxyguanosine levels in mtDNA in rats and mice. Oral antioxidant administration protected against both glutathione oxidation and mtDNA damage in rats and mice. Finally, we have found a direct relationship between mtDNA damage and mitochondrial glutathione oxidation. This occurs both in rats (r=0.95) and in mice (r=0.98). This relationship, which has been observed for the first time in these studies, underscores the role of glutathione in the protection against free radical damage that occurs upon aging.