Aging is accompanied by a gradual deterioration of cell functions. Mitochondrial dysfunction and accumulation of protein damage have been proposed to contribute to this process. The present study was carried out to examine the effects of aging in mitochondrial matrix isolated from rat liver. The activity of Lon protease, an enzyme implicated in the degradation of abnormal matrix proteins, was measured and the accumulation of oxidation and glycoxidation (Nepsilon-carboxymethyllysine, CML) products was monitored using immunochemical assays. The function of isolated mitochondria was assessed by measuring respiratory chain activity. Mitochondria from aged (27 months) rats exhibited the same rate of oxygen consumption as those from adult (10 months) rats without any change in coupling efficiency. At the same time, the ATP-stimulated Lon protease activity, measured as fluorescent peptides released, markedly decreased from 10-month-old rats (1.15 +/- 0.15 FU x micro g protein-1 x h-1) to 27-month-old-rats (0.59 +/- 0.08 FU x micro g protein-1 x h-1). In parallel with this decrease in activity, oxidized proteins accumulated in the matrix upon aging while the CML-modified protein content assessed by ELISA significantly increased by 52% from 10 months (11.71 +/- 0.61 pmol CML x micro g protein-1) to 27 months (17.81 +/- 1.83 pmol CML x micro g protein-1). These results indicate that the accumulation of deleterious oxidized and carboxymethylated proteins in the matrix concomitant with loss of the Lon protease activity may affect the ability of aging mitochondria to respond to additional stress.