Maternally transmitted antigen (Mta) is a mouse major histocompatibility antigen recognized by cytotoxic T lymphocytes. A role for mitochondria in expression of this class I-like cell surface antigen has been previously established. We now show that a labile product of mitochondrial protein synthesis is required for Mta expression. Reexpression of Mta determinants after enzymatic removal occurred within 24 h, and the regeneration process was sensitive to chloramphenicol (CAP), a selective inhibitor of mitochondrial protein synthesis. Additionally, target cells treated with CAP for as little as 18 h showed diminished expression of Mta. The estimated half-life for Mtf products ranged from 6 to 15 h, less than the half-lives of known mitochondrial translation products. This suggests that the Mtf product is not generated by the normal turnover of stable mitochondrial respiratory proteins. Instead, these results indicate the existence of either labile unknown mitochondrially encoded peptides or a rapid turnover pathway for known mitochondrial products. © 1989 Springer-Verlag.