We have previously defined viability limits in a rat transplantation model. All liver allografts stored in a simple preservation solution (NaCl 0.9%, CaCl2 2 mM) at 4°C for 4 hr or at 37°C for 1 hr were viable upon transplantation, but all those stored at 4°C for 8 hr or at 37°C for 2 hr were nonviable. Only cold-preserved, nonviable livers showed increased vascular resistance, platelet trapping and an initially low, but then high, rise in aspartate transaminase (AST) upon reperfusion, all suggesting injury to the microcirculation, with secondary injury to the hepatocyte. In the present study, we investigated the morphological changes that occur in livers stored for the defined critical times, using light and electron microscopy after perfusion-fixation. Accurate and reproducible identification of specimens as belonging to viable or nonviable and warm- or cold- preserved could be made in this way. Preservation in the cold first resulted in reversible changes consisting of cellular swelling, alterations of intracellular organelles, and partial denudation of the sinusoidal lining (cold-preserved viable group). Later, under conditions of nonviable cold preservation, detachment of cell bodies of sinusoidal lining cells with nuclear changes and almost complete denudation of the sinusoidal lining was observed. Endothelial cells of larger vessels were only injured mildly. In contrast, under conditions of warm preservation, changes involving mitochondria and later nuclei were found in hepatocytes, and blebbing was more extensive. Endothelial cells were spared relatively. We also examined livers stored in isotonic citrate solution at 4°C for 8 hr and 16 hr, the critical times determined for this solution in another model of rat liver transplantation. The findings were very similar to storage in saline with respect to the changes in the sinusoidal lining cells after cold preservation for the two critical times. The results provide convincing evidence of a qualitative difference between warm and cold preservation injury, with relatively selective damage to hepatocytes or sinusoidal lining cells, respectively. Endothelial damage represents the primary event, resulting in the loss of organ viability following hypothermic storage. Thus morphology may serve as a useful viability marker after preservation.