The effects of nilutamide on the mitochondrial respiratory chain were investigated in rats. In isolated mitochondria, nilutamide (100 microM) inhibited respiration that was supported by substrates feeding electrons into complex I of the respiratory chain but did not inhibit respiration that was supported by substrates donating electrons to complexes II, III or IV. Inhibition of complex I occurred without any lag time. In submitochondrial particles, nilutamide (100 microM) decreased both oxygen consumption mediated by NADH and the oxidation of NADH; addition of superoxide dismutase and catalase did not alleviate inhibition. There was no electron spin resonance evidence for detectable mitochondrial formation of the nilutamide nitro anion free radical by submitochondrial particles or for the formation of iron-nitrosyl complexes with mitochondrial Fe-S clusters in isolated hepatocytes. Severe inhibition of complex I by nilutamide (500 microM) led to upstream inhibition of fatty acid beta-oxidation. Nilutamide (100 microM) decreased the mitochondrial membrane potential and ATP formation in mitochondria energized by malate plus glutamate. In hepatocytes incubated without glucose, nilutamide (500 microM) led to an early (2 hr) drop in cellular ATP and early (4 hr) toxicity. With 5 mM glucose, however, ATP was not decreased and toxicity was mild at these early times. It was concluded that nilutamide itself inhibited the mitochondrial respiratory chain at the level of complex I and decreased ATP in hepatocytes incubated without glucose, which resulted in early toxicity. In the presence of glucose, ATP was not depleted at early times and delayed toxicity was probably the result of an oxidative stress (as previously reported).