The mammalian mitochondrial genome (mtDNA) is a small double-stranded DNA molecule that is exclusively transmitted down the maternal line. Pathogenic mtDNA mutations are usually heteroplasmic, with a mixture of mutant and wild-type mtDNA within the same organism. A woman harbouring one of these mutations transmits a variable amount of mutant mtDNA to each offspring. This can result in a healthy child or an infant with a devastating and fatal neurological disorder. Understanding the biological basis of this uncertainty is one of the principal challenges facing scientists and clinicians in the field of mitochondrial genetics.