Immunohistochemical detection of complex HIII (ubiquinone- cytochrome-c-oxidoreductase) and complex IV (cytochrome-c-oxidase) of the respiratory chain was performed in parathyroids of 164 humans with normal renal function (group I) and in 55 patients with chronic renal insufficiency (group II) obtained at autopsy. In group I, 33 of the 164 cases showed defects of the respiratory chain (20%). Eighty-five percent of the defects occurred in advanced age (> 50 years). In group II, 39 of 55 cases (70%) had defects, and about 70% of the defects occurred after age 50. In both groups, more than 80% of the defects were localized in oxyphil cell nodules. However, not every oxyphil nodule was involved. In group I, selective defects of complex IV predominated and were found in 47 of 86 defects (55%). Combined defects of complexes III and IV were present in 25 of 86 defects (29%). In contrast, in group II combined defects predominated and were found in 45% (107 of 240 defects), whereas single defects of complex IV existed in 38% (93 of 240 defects). The frequency of selective defects of complex III was about 16% to 17% in both groups. In situ hybridization and PCR studies for the detection of the common deletion (4.977 base pairs) and of various point mutations of mitochondrial of (m)DNA revealed no consistent molecular genetic abnormalities. A point mutation in the tRNALeu(UUR) at nucleotide (nt) 3.260 was found in only one probe. The results show that defects of the respiratory chain occur already in normal parathyroids, most probably during cell aging, especially in oxyphil cells and at a higher rate in hyperfunction. The high predominance of respiratory chain defects in oxyphil cells and their random distribution favors mutations of mtDNA as a possible cause of oxyphilic cell transformation and of the respiratory chain defects. However, the mutations of mtDNA in the parathyroids are apparently different from those in other ageing tissues.