The derivation of human cell lines devoid of mitochondrial (mt) DNA (rho 0) provides an opportunity to study nuclear responses to a chronic impairment of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation. Expression of several nuclear genes is induced in human rho 0 cells, including those encoding integral proteins of the mitochondrial inner membrane, intermediate filaments, and ribosomes. In contrast to conditions in which mitochondrial respiration is altered acutely, expression of heat shock proteins and immediate early genes is not induced. Mitochondria from rho 0 cells maintain a transmembrane electrochemical potential and are distributed within the cytoplasm of these cells in a manner indistinguishable from that of wild-type cells. We conclude that a chronic deficiency of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation produced by elimination of mtDNA is associated with a different pattern of gene induction than that provoked by other acute or subacute conditions that impair mitochondrial respiration or create energy demands in excess of mitochondrial respiratory capacity.