1. The fatty acid composition of the membrane lipids of a fatty acid desaturase mutant of Saccharomyces cerevisiae was manipulated by growing the organism in a medium containing defined fatty acid supplements. 2. Mitochondria were obtained whose fatty acids contain between 20% and 80% unsaturated fatty acids. 3. Mitochondria with high proportions of unsaturated fatty acids in their lipids have coupled oxidative phosphorylation with normal P/O ratios, accumulate K(+) ions in the presence of valinomycin and an energy source, and eject protons in an energy-dependent fashion. 4. If the unsaturated fatty acid content of the mitochondrial fatty acids is lowered to 20%, the mitochondria simultaneously lose active cation transport and the ability to couple phosphorylation to respiration. 5. The loss of energy-linked reactions is accompanied by an increased passive permeability of the mitochondria to protons. 6. Free fatty acids uncouple oxidative phosphorylation in yeast mitochondria and the effect is reversed by bovine serum albumin. 7. The free fatty acid contents of yeast mitochondria are unaffected by depletion of unsaturated fatty acids, and free fatty acids are not responsible for the uncoupling of oxidative phosphorylation in organelles depleted in unsaturated fatty acids. 8. It is suggested that the loss of energy-linked reactions in yeast mitochondria that are depleted in unsaturated fatty acids is a consequence of the increased passive permeability to protons, and is caused by a change in the physical properties of the lipid phase of the inner mitochondrial membrane.