Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) associated with mitochondrial DNA mutation is a maternally inherited eye disease. We reported here the clinical, genetic and molecular characterization of two Han Chinese families with Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy. Ophthalmologic examinations revealed that the variable severity and age-of-onset in visual impairment among probands and other matrilineal relatives of these families. Strikingly, there were extremely low penetrances of visual impairment in these families. Sequence analysis of complete mitochondrial genomes in these pedigrees identified the homoplasmic ND4 G11696A and ND5 T12338C mutation and distinct sets of polymorphism belonging to haplogroups F2. It is well known that mitochondrial DNA ND4 G11696A is associated with LHON. The ND5 T12338C mutation resulted in replacement of the first amino acid, translation-initiating methionine with a threonine, and shortening two amino acids of ND5. This mutation also locates in two nucleotides adjacent to the 3' end of the tRNALeu(Cun). Thus, this mutation may alter structural formation and stabilization of functional tRNA, thereby leading to a failure in protein synthesis and mitochondrial dysfunction involved in visual impairment. Therefore, the ND4 G11696A and ND5 T12338C mutation is likely associated with LHON in these two Chinese families. But these families exhibited extremely low penetrances of visual impairment. It suggests that other factors, such as nuclear modifier gene(s) or environmental factor(s), may play a role in the phenotypic expression of the LHON-associated ND4 G11696A and ND5 T12338C mutation.