Defects of the respiratory chain are a typical feature of mitochondrial diseases and occur also during normal aging where they have been described in postmitotic tissues. The present study addresses the question of defect expression in the normal and cirrhotic liver. Randomly distributed defects of complex III (ubiquinone-cytochrome-c-oxidoreductase) and of complex IV (cytochrome-c-oxidase) of the respiratory chain have been detected with age-related increasing frequency both in normal and cirrhotic livers. No defects were present for complex II (succinate-dehydrogenase) and complex V (adenosine triphosphate-synthase) and in liver cell carcinomas. Sixty-one of 107 normal livers (57%) showed defects of the respiratory chain. The defects occurred in advanced age (over 50 years) in 87%. In contrast 50 of 64 cirrhotic livers (78%) had defects and approximately 60% occurred after age 50. The defects were caused by a loss of enzyme protein involving both nuclearly and mitochondrially coded subunits. Ninety-four percent of the defects (n = 275) involved complex IV selectively. In 4% selective defects of complex III were found and combined defects of both complexes occurred in only 2%. In situ hybridization and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) studies for the detection of the common deletion (4.977 bp) and of various point mutations of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) revealed no consistent molecular genetic abnormalities in microdissected respiratory chain defective liver cell areas. Single point mutations at nt 3243 and/or 5692 were found only in 7 of 18 microdissected probes from 6 patients. The results show that defects of the respiratory chain occur already in normal livers most probably during cell aging and at a higher rate in cirrhosis. The random defect pattern favors a stochastic process, e.g., free radical damage. However, the role of mutations of mtDNA remains to be established.