GDP binding to brown adipose tissue (BAT) mitochondria increased more than twofold in 20 min when rats were moved from 27 to 4 degrees C. When animals housed at 4 degrees C for 2 h were returned to 27 degrees C, GDP binding decreased sharply in 20 min and returned to control levels in 2 h. These results are consistent with a rapid unmasking and remasking of GDP binding sites. GDP binding to mitochondria from warm and acutely cold treated rats was not modified by prior swelling, by freeze-thawing, nor by sonication of the mitochondria before assay. GDP-inhibitable proton conductance, as measured by passive swelling, was unaffected by this brief exposure to cold but more than doubled in rats kept at 4 degrees C for 10 days. We hypothesize that the rate of GDP-inhibitable swelling may be a reflection of uncoupling protein concentration in the BAT mitochondria, whereas physiological thermogenic activity is more appropriately indicated by GDP binding. The alterations in binding activity appear not to be due to changes in the mitochondrial membrane integrity.