The mucopolysaccharidoses represent a devastating group of lysosomal storage diseases affecting approximately 1 in 25 000 individuals. Advances in biochemistry and genetics over the past 25 years have resulted in the identification of the key hydrolases underlying the mucopolysaccharidoses, with subsequent isolation and characterisation of the genes involved. Ultimately these advances have led to the recent development of specific treatment regimens for some of the mucopolysaccharidoses, in the form of direct enzyme replacement. Direct replacement of the defective gene product has been attempted for very few genetic disorders, and thus the experience gained in the lysosomal storage diseases by the development, evaluation and integration of treatment regimens into healthcare is instructive for other rare genetic disorders. This review focuses on the pathophysiology of the mucopolysaccharidoses and highlights the complex biochemical and physiological perturbations that underlie the disease phenotype.