Cardiac storage for transplantation is currently limited to 6 hours. To better understand the metabolic changes that occur during hypothermic (4 degrees C) storage, we monitored the morphologic and metabolic changes in the canine myocardium at 0, 12, and 24 hours of storage in University of Wisconsin solution. Attempts to isolate cardiac mitochondria resulted in a progressive decline in the yield (milligrams of mitochondria per gram of heart tissue), which decreased (p less than 0.05) from 9.2 +/- 0.4 at 0 hours (control) to 4.0 +/- 0.3 after 12 hours and further decreased (p less than 0.05) to 1.9 +/- 0.2 after 24 hours of cold storage. Mitochondrial state 3 respiration fell to 64% of control after 12 hours and 28% of control after 24 hours of cold storage (p less than 0.05). Citrate synthetase activity, but not cytochrome C oxidase activity, was significantly depressed after 12 and 24 hours of cold storage. Adenosine triphosphate content decreased to 67% of control after 12 hours and 50% of control after 24 hours. After 12 hours of storage, sufficient adenosine diphosphate and monophosphate were present to permit some restoration of adenosine triphosphate, provided mitochondrial function was normal after transplantation. However, restoration of mitochondrial function and adenosine triphosphate levels sufficient to support myocardial contractility was unlikely after 24 hours of storage. This study suggests that a return of adequate cardiac function after transplantation may be possible after 12 hours of cold storage in University of Wisconsin solution but not after 24 hours of cold storage.