The 'expanded' HD CAG repeat t hat causes Huntington's disease (HD) encodes a polyglutamine tract in huntingtin, which first targets the death of medium-sized spiny striatal neurons. Mitochondrial energetics, related to N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) Ca2+-signaling, has long been implicated in this neuronal specificity, implying an integral role for huntingtin in mitochondrial energy metabolism. As a genetic test of this hypothesis, we have looked for a relationship between the length of the HD CAG repeat, expressed in endogenous huntingtin, and mitochondrial ATP production. In STHdhQ111 knock-in striatal cells, a juvenile onset HD CAG repeat was associated with low mitochondrial ATP and decreased mitochondrial ADP-uptake. This metabolic inhibition was associated with enhanced Ca2+-influx through NMDA receptors, which when blocked resulted in increased cellular [ATP/ ADP]. We then evaluated [ATP/ADP] in 40 human lymphoblastoid cell lines, bearing non-HD CAG lengths (9-34 units) or HD-causing alleles (35-70 units). This analysis revealed an inverse association with the longer of the two allelic HD CAG repeats in both the non-HD and HD ranges. Thus, the polyglutamine tract in huntingtin appears to regulate mitochondrial ADP-phosphorylation in a Ca2+-dependent process that fulfills the genetic criteria for the HD trigger of pathogenesis, and it thereby determines a fundamental biological parameter - cellular energy status, which may contribute to the exquisite vulnerability of striatal neurons in HD. Moreover, the evidence that this polymorphism can determine energy status in the non-HD range suggests that it should be tested as a potential physiological modifier in both health and disease. © The Author 2005. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.