Osteoclasts are multinuclear bone-resorbing cells which contain abundant mitochondria. Morphological studies have suggested that a correlation may exist between mitochondrial concentration and bone resorption by osteoclasts. However, investigation of mitochondrial transmembrane potential (delta psi) and volume has been hampered by the difficulty in obtaining a sufficient number of osteoclasts for assessing these characteristics by flow cytometric analysis. In this study, we have used confocal laser scanning microscopy after loading the cells with Rhodamine 123 and 10-nonyl Acridine Orange to record mitochondrial delta psi and volume, respectively, in isolated rat osteoclasts cultured on bovine bone slices. Optimal staining conditions were found to be 10 micrograms ml-1 for 40 min for Rhodamine, and 1 microM for 10 min for the 10-nonyl Acridine Orange derivative. Two osteoclast populations, whose shape seemed to reflect bone resorption and migratory functions, were identified depending on their shape and on the distribution of the two dye probes. 'Round-shaped' osteoclasts had significantly higher mitochondrial delta psi and volume in the apical regions than in the basolateral portions (p < 0.00001). In contrast, mitochondrial delta psi and volume in 'irregular-shaped' osteoclasts were rather evenly distributed in both these regions (p > 0.05). Our results indicate that there is an apical polarization of mitochondria in osteoclasts corresponding to the energy demands associated with bone resorption.