Mitochondria play a central role in cellular energy provision. The organelles contain their own genome with a modified genetic code. The mammalian mitochondrial genome is transmitted exclusively through the female germ line. The human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is a double-stranded, circular molecule of 16569 bp and contains 37 genes coding for two rRNAs, 22 tRNAs and 13 polypeptides. The mtDNA-encoded polypeptides are all subunits of enzyme complexes of the oxidative phosphorylation system. Mitochondria are not self-supporting entities but rely heavily for their functions on imported nuclear gene products. The basic mechanisms of mitochondrial gene expression have been solved. Cis-acting mtDNA sequences have been characterised by sequence comparisons, mapping studies and mutation analysis both in vitro and in patients harbouring mtDNA mutations. Characterisation of trans-acting factors has proven more difficult but several key enzymes involved in mtDNA replication, transcription and protein synthesis have now been biochemically identified and some have been cloned. These studies revealed that, although some factors may have an additional function elsewhere in the cell, most are unique to mitochondria. It is expected that cell cultures of patients with mitochondrial diseases will increasingly be used to address fundamental questions about mtDNA expression.