To clarify the bioenergetic relevance of mtDNA mutations in Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), we investigated affected individuals and healthy carriers from six Italian LHON families harboring the 11778/ND4 and the 3460/ND1 mtDNA mutations. The enzymatic activities of mitochondrial complex I and its sensitivity to the potent inhibitors rotenone and rolliniastatin-2 were studied in mitochondrial particles from platelets, in correlation with mtDNA analysis of platelets and leukocytes. In platelets homoplasmic for mutant mtDNA, both 11778/ND4 and 3460/ND1 mutations induced resistance to rotenone and the 3460/ND1 mutation also provoked a marked decrease in the specific activity of complex I. Individuals heteroplasmic in platelets for either mutation showed normal biochemical features, indicating functional complementation of wild-type mtDNA. There was no correlation between the clinical status and mtDNA homo/heteroplasmy in platelets, but the biochemical features correlated with the mitochondrial genotype of platelets. In some cases, the degree of mtDNA heteroplasmy differed in platelets and leukocytes from the same individual with a prevalence of wild-type mtDNA in the platelets. These results imply that biochemical studies on mitochondrial diseases should always be integrated with mtDNA analysis of the same tissue investigated and also suggest that the mtDNA analysis on the leukocyte fraction, as usually performed in LHON, does not necessarily reflect the mutant genotype level of other tissues. The differential tissue heteroplasmy may be more relevant than previously thought in determining disease penetrance.