Background: Diabetes has become the single most common cause for end-stage renal disease in the United States. It has been established that mitochondrial damage occurs during diabetes; however, little is known about what initiates mitochondrial injury and oxidant production during the early stages of diabetes. Inactivation of mitochondrial respiratory complexes or alteration of their critical subunits can lead to generation of mitochondrial oxidants, mitochondrial damage, and organ injury. Thus, one goal of this study was to determine the status of mitochondrial respiratory complexes in the rat kidney during the early stages of diabetes (5-weeks post streptozotocin injection). Methods: Mitochondrial complex activity assays, blue native gel electrophoresis (BN-PAGE), Complex III immunoprecipitation, and an ATP assay were performed to examine the effects of diabetes on the status of respiratory complexes and energy levels in renal mitochondria. Creatinine clearance and urine albumin excretion were measured to assess the status of renal function in our model. Results: Interestingly, of all four respiratory complexes only cytochrome c reductase (Complex-III) activity was significantly decreased, whereas two Complex III subunits, Core 2 protein and Rieske protein, were up regulated in the diabetic renal mitochondria. The BN-PAGE data suggested that Complex III failed to assemble correctly, which could also explain the compensatory upregulation of specific Complex III subunits. In addition, the renal F0F1-ATPase activity and ATP levels were increased during diabetes. Conclusion: In summary, these findings show for the first time that early (and selective) inactivation of Complex-III may contribute to the mitochondrial oxidant production which occurs in the early stages of diabetes. © 2009 Munusamy et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.