Populations of weed beets have expanded into European sugar beet production areas since the 1970s, thereby forming a serious new weed problem for this crop. We sampled seeds in different French populations and studied mitochondrial DNA, chloroplast DNA and life-cycle variability. Given the maternal inheritance of the mitochondrial and chloroplastic genomes and the nuclear determinism of the annual habit, we were able to determine the maternal origin and evolution of these weed beet populations. Our study shows that they carry the dominant allele "B" for annual habit at high frequency. The main cytoplasmic DNA type found in northern weed beet populations is the cytoplasmic male-sterile type characteristic of sugar beets. We were able to determine that these populations arise from seeds originating from the accidental pollinations of cultivated beets by adventitious beets in the seed production area, which have been transported to the regions where sugar beets are cultivated. These seeds are supposedly the origin of the weed forms and a frequently disturbed cultivated environment has selected for annual habit and early flowering genotypes. We discuss the consequences of the weed beet populations for the breeding, seed production and release of herbicide-resistant transgenic sugar beets.