Many mitochondrial and plastid proteins are derived from their bacterial endosymbiotic ancestors, but their genes now reside on nuclear chromosomes instead of remaining within the organelle. To become an active nuclear gene and return to the organelle as a functional protein, an organellar gene must first be assimilated into the nuclear genome. The gene must then be transcribed and acquire a transit sequence for targeting the protein back to the organelle. On reaching the organelle, the protein must be properly folded and modified, and in many cases assembled in an orderly manner into a larger protein complex. Finally, the nuclear copy must be properly regulated to achieve a fitness level comparable with the organellar gene. Given the complexity in establishing a nuclear copy, why do organellar genes end up in the nucleus? Recent data suggest that these genes are worse off than their nuclear and free-living counterparts because of a reduction in the efficiency of natural selection, but do these population-genetic processes drive the movement of genes to the nucleus? We are now at a stage where we can begin to discriminate between competing hypotheses using a combination of experimental, natural population, bioinformatic and theoretical approaches.