A significant amount of reactive oxygen species (ROS) is generated during mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation. Several studies have suggested that mtDNA may accumulate more oxidative DNA damage relative to nuclear DNA. This study used quantitative PCR to examine the formation and repair of hydrogen peroxide-induced DNA damage in a 16.2-kb mitochondrial fragment and a 17.7-kb fragment flanking the beta-globin gene. Simian virus 40-transformed fibroblasts treated with 200 microM hydrogen peroxide for 15 or 60 min exhibited 3-fold more damage to the mitochondrial genome compared with the nuclear fragment. Following a 60-min treatment, damage to the nuclear fragment was completely repaired within 1.5 hr, whereas no DNA repair in the mitochondrion was observed. Mitochondrial function, as assayed by 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyl tetrazolium bromide reduction, also showed a sharp decline. These cells displayed arrested-cell growth, large increases in p21 protein levels, and morphological changes consistent with apoptosis. In contrast, when hydrogen peroxide treatments were limited to 15 min, mtDNA damage was repaired with similar kinetics as the nuclear fragment, mitochondrial function was restored, and cells resumed division within 12 hr. These results indicate that mtDNA is a critical cellular target for ROS. A model is presented in which chronic ROS exposure, found in several degenerative diseases associated with aging, leads to decreased mitochondrial function, increased mitochondrial-generated ROS, and persistent mitochondrial DNA damage. Thus persistent mitochondrial DNA damage may serve as a useful biomarker for ROS-associated diseases.