Ischemia-reperfusion injury to cardiac myocytes involves membrane damage mediated by oxygen free radicals. Lipid peroxidation is considered a major mechanism of oxygen free radical toxicity in reperfused heart. Mitochondrial respiration is an important source of these reactive oxygen species and hence a potential contributor to reperfusion injury. We have examined the effects of ischemia (30 min) and ischemia followed by reperfusion (15 min) of rat hearts, on the kinetic parameters of cytochrome c oxidase, on the respiratory activities and on the phospholipid composition in isolated mitochondria. Mitochondrial content of malonyldialdheyde (MDA), an index of lipid peroxidation, was also measured. Reperfusion was accompanied by a significant increase in MDA production. Mitochondrial preparations from control, ischemic and reperfused rat heart had equivalent Km values for cytochrome c, although the maximal activity of the oxidase was 25 and 51% less in ischemic and reperfused mitochondria than that of controls. These changes in the cytochrome c oxidase activity were associated to parallel changes in state 3 mitochondrial respiration. The cytochrome aa3 content was practically the same in these three types of mitochondria. Alterations were found in the mitochondrial content of the major phospholipid classes, the most pronounced change occurring in the cardiolipin, the level that decreased by 28 and by 50% as function of ischemia and reperfusion, respectively. The lower cytochrome c oxidase activity in mitochondria from reperfused rat hearts could be almost completely restored to the level of control hearts by exogenously added cardiolipin, but not by other phospholipids nor by peroxidized cardiolipin. It is proposed that the reperfusion-induced decline in the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase activity can be ascribed, at least in part, to a loss of cardiolipin content, due to peroxidative attack of its unsaturated fatty acids by oxygen free radicals. These findings may provide an explanation for some of the factors that lead to myocardial reperfusion injury.