The effects of chronic ethanol consumption on the properties of mitochondrial and cytoplasmic ribosomes were investigated in rat liver. Sedimentation properties of purified mitochondrial (55S) and cytoplasmic (80S) ribosomes were determined by analyses on sucrose density gradients. Mitochondrial ribosomes from control animals moved further in the gradients than did those isolated from ethanol-fed rats, which suggests that ethanol ribosomes have a lower molecular weight. In addition, mitochondrial from ethanol-fed animals contained a lower percentage of ribosomes present as the intact monosome, suggesting that ethanol may have an effect on the stability of the functional mitochondrial ribosomes. This was confirmed by the presence of the larger 39S subunit in preparations from ethanol-fed animals. No such ethanol-related alterations were seen with cytoplasmic ribosomes. The protein composition of mitochondrial cytoplasmic ribosomes was investigated using two-dimensional gel electrophoresis, followed by two-dimensional densitometry. As indicated by differences in protein staining intensity, ethanol consumption seemed to alter the concentration of seven mitochondrial ribosomal proteins. In contrast, no such changes were observed in the protein pattern from cytoplasmic ribosomes. Observations in this study provide for the possibility that alterations in the amounts of selected proteins in the mitochondrial ribosome lead to impaired assembly of the ribosome. These ethanol-related structural changes may be responsible for the decreased activity of mitochondrial ribosomes that results in impaired hepatic mitochondrial protein synthesis (W.B. Coleman and C.C. Cunningham, Biochim. Biophys, Acta 1058:178-186, 1991). Furthermore, this study reemphasizes the increased susceptibility of the hepatic mitochondrial translation system, compared with the cytoplasmic system to chronic ethanol consumption.