Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) has traditionally been considered a disease causing severe and permanent visual loss in young adult males. In nearly all families with LHON it is associated with one of three pathogenic mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations, at bp 11778, 3460 or 14484. The availability of mtDNA confirmation of a diagnosis of LHON has demonstrated that LHON occurs with a wider range of age at onset and more commonly in females than previously recognised. In addition, analysis of patients grouped according to mtDNA mutation has demonstrated differences both in the clinical features of visual failure and in recurrence risks to relatives associated with each of the pathogenic mtDNA mutations. Whilst pathogenic mtDNA mutations are required for the development of LHON, other factors must be reponsible for the variable penetrance and male predominance of this condition. Available data on a number of hypotheses including the role of an additional X-linked visual loss susceptibility locus, impaired mitochondrial respiratory chain activity, mtDNA heteroplasmy, environmental factors and autoimmunity are discussed. Subacute visual failure is seen in association with all three pathogenic LHON mutations. However, the clinical and experimental data reviewed suggest differences in the phenotype associated with each of the three mutations which may reflect variation in the disease mechanisms resulting in this common end-point.