The spectral properties of a novel membrane potential sensitive probe (JC-1) were characterized in aqueous buffers and in isolated cardiac mitochondria. JC-1 is a carbocyanine with a delocalized positive charge. It formed under favorable conditions a concentration-dependent fluorescent nematic phase consisting of J-aggregates. When excited at 490 nm, the monomers exhibited an emission maximum at 527 nm and J-aggregates at 590 nm. Increasing concentrations of JC-1 above a certain concentration caused a linear rise in the J-aggregate fluorescence, while the monomer fluorescence remained constant. The membrane potential of energized mitochondria (negative inside) promoted a directional uptake of JC-1 into the matrix, also with subsequent formation of J-aggregates. The J-aggregate fluorescence was sensitive to transient membrane potential changes induced by ADP and to metabolic inhibitors of oxidative phosphorylation. The J-aggregate fluorescence was found to be pH independent within the physiological pH range of 7.15-8.0 and could be linearly calibrated with valinomycin-induced K+ diffusion potentials. The advantage of JC-1 over rhodamines and other carbocyanines is that its color altered reversibly from green to red with increasing membrane potentials. This can be exploited for imaging live mitochondria on the stage of a microscope.