Triethylphosphine gold complexes have therapeutic activity in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Many of these compounds are also highly cytotoxic in vitro to a variety of tumor and non-tumor cell lines. Triethylphosphine gold chloride (TEPAu) is highly cytotoxic to isolated rat hepatocytes at concentrations greater than 25 microM. The earliest changes that could be detected in hepatocytes included bleb formation in the plasma membrane, alterations in the morphology of mitochondria, and rapid decreases in cellular ATP and oxygen consumption. The degradation of ATP could be followed sequentially through ADP and AMP and was ultimately accounted for entirely as xanthine. The sum of adenine and xanthine-derived nucleotides remained constant throughout the experiments. TEPAu (50 microM) caused a significant decrease in the hepatocyte ATP/ADP ratio and energy charge within 5 min. The antioxidant, N,N'-diphenyl-p-phenylenediamine (DPPD), which blocked TEPAu-induced malondialdehyde formation but not cell death, also had no effect on the decreases in oxygen consumption, ATP, ATP/ADP ratio, or energy charge. In isolated rat liver mitochondria, TEPAu (1 microM) caused significant reductions in carbonyl cyanide-4-trifluoromethoxyphenylhydrazone (FCCP) (uncoupled)-stimulated respiration. TEPAu (5 microM) inhibited state 3 respiration and the respiratory control ratio without affecting state 4 respiration and caused a rapid dissipation of the mitochondrial-membrane hydrogen-ion gradient (membrane potential). Concentrations greater than 5 microM also inhibited state 4 respiration. TEPAu caused a concentration-dependent inhibition of FCCP-stimulated respiration with pyruvate/malate and succinate as substrates but had not effect on ascorbate/tetramethyl-p-phenylenediamine-supported respiration. The inhibition of state 4 respiration and FCCP-stimulated respiration by TEPAu (10 microM) could be reversed by the addition of 2 mM dithiothreitol. Dithiothreitol also partially protected cells from TEPAu-induced injury and reversed the TEPAu-induced depletion in cellular ATP. These data indicate that TEPAu may be acting functionally as a respiratory site II inhibitor, similar to antimycin. The reversal of TEPAu-induced inhibition of mitochondrial respiration and cell lethality by dithiothreitol suggests that mitochondrial thiols may be involved.