Inheritance of animal mtDNA is almost exclusively maternal, most likely because sperm-derived mitochondria are actively eliminated from the ovum, either at or soon after fertilization. How such elimination occurs is currently unknown. We asked whether similar behavior could be detected in somatic cells, by following the fate of mitochondria and mtDNAs after entry of human sperm into transformed cells containing mitochondria but lacking endogenous mtDNAs (rho0 cells). We found that a high proportion (10%-20%) of cells contained functioning sperm mitochondria soon after sperm entry. However, under selective conditions permitting only the survival of cells harboring functional mtDNAs, only approximately 1/10(5) cells containing sperm mitochondria survived and proliferated. These data imply that mitochondria in sperm can enter somatic cells relatively easily, but they also suggest that mechanisms exist to eliminate sperm-derived mtDNA from somatic cells, mechanisms perhaps similar to those presumed to operate in the fertilized oocyte.