We have identified the first stop-codon point mutation in mtDNA to be reported in association with human disease. A 36-year-old woman experienced episodes of encephalopathy accompanied by lactic acidemia and had exercise intolerance and proximal myopathy. Histochemical analysis showed that 90% of muscle fibers exhibited decreased or absent cytochrome c oxidase (COX) activity. Biochemical studies confirmed a severe isolated reduction in COX activity. Muscle immunocytochemistry revealed a pattern suggestive of a primary mtDNA defect in the COX-deficient fibers and was consistent with either reduced stability or impaired assembly of the holoenzyme. Sequence analysis of mtDNA identified a novel heteroplasmic G-->A point mutation at position 9952 in the patient's skeletal muscle, which was not detected in her leukocyte mtDNA or in that of 120 healthy controls or 60 additional patients with mitochondrial disease. This point mutation is located in the 3' end of the gene for subunit III of COX and is predicted to result in the loss of the last 13 amino acids of the highly conserved C-terminal region of this subunit. It was not detected in mtDNA extracted from leukocytes, skeletal muscle, or myoblasts of the patient's mother or her two sons, indicating that this mutation is not maternally transmitted. Single-fiber PCR studies provided direct evidence for an association between this point mutation and COX deficiency and indicated that the proportion of mutant mtDNA required to induce COX deficiency is lower than that reported for tRNA-gene point mutations. The findings reported here represent only the second case of isolated COX deficiency to be defined at the molecular genetic level and reveal a new mutational mechanism in mitochondrial disease.