Aminoglycoside ototoxicity has been related to a surprisingly large number of cellular structures and metabolic pathways. The finding that patients with mutations in mitochondrial rRNA are hypersusceptible to aminoglycoside-induced hearing loss has indicated a possible role for mitochondrial protein synthesis. To study the molecular interaction of aminoglycosides with eukaryotic ribosomes, we made use of the observation that the drug binding site is a distinct domain defined by the small subunit rRNA, and investigated drug susceptibility of bacterial hybrid ribosomes carrying various alleles of the eukaryotic decoding site. Compared to hybrid ribosomes with the A site of human cytosolic ribosomes, susceptibility of mitochondrial hybrid ribosomes to various aminoglycosides correlated with the relative cochleotoxicity of these drugs. Sequence alterations that correspond to the mitochondrial deafness mutations A1555G and C1494T increased drug-binding and rendered the ribosomal decoding site hypersusceptible to aminoglycoside-induced mistranslation and inhibition of protein synthesis. Our results provide experimental support for aminoglycoside-induced dysfunction of the mitochondrial ribosome. We propose a pathogenic mechanism in which interference of aminoglycosides with mitochondrial protein synthesis exacerbates the drugs' cochlear toxicity, playing a key role in sporadic dose-dependent and genetically inherited, aminoglycoside-induced deafness.