Cytochrome c oxidase (EC 126.96.36.199) is an enzyme which is composed of subunits derived from both the mitochondrial and the nuclear genomes. To determine whether or not the expression of these two genomes is co-ordinated at the mRNA level, we have examined the steady-state levels of mRNAs coding for cytochrome c oxidase subunit III (mitochondrially encoded) and subunit VIc (nuclear-encoded) in rat tissues. This was compared with the tissue concentration of the holoenzyme, which was estimated by measuring cytochrome c oxidase enzyme activity. The tissues (heart, brain, liver, kidney, soleus muscle and superficial white vastus muscle) possessed a 13-fold range of enzyme activity, which was highest in heart and lowest in the superficial vastus muscle. Specific subunit mRNA levels were quantified by using slot-blot hybridization of cDNA probes to total tissue RNA. The highest values for subunit III and Vlc mRNA tissue contents were found in kidney, followed by liver and heart (40-60% of that of kidney). The white vastus muscle contained the lowest subunit mRNA level (15% of that of kidney). Although some variability was apparent within each tissue, a parallel pattern of mRNA expression of the nuclear- and mitochondrially encoded subunits was observed. Differences between muscle (heart, vastus and soleus) and non-muscle tissues were noted in the relationship between mRNA and protein levels of expression. Thus, although this suggests that tissue-specific regulatory processes operate, the steady-state expression of subunit III and subunit Vlc mRNAs appears to be co-ordinately regulated.