Studies in vitro have shown that a respiratory-deficient phenotype is expressed by cells when the proportion of mtDNA with a disease-associated mutation exceeds a threshold level, but analysis of tissues from patients with mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis, and strokelike episodes (MELAS) have failed to show a consistent relationship between the degree of heteroplasmy and biochemical expression of the defect. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that there is variation of heteroplasmy between individual cells that is not adequately reflected by the mean heteroplasmy for a tissue. We have confirmed this by study of fibroblast clones from subjects heteroplasmic for the MELAS 3243 (A-->G) mtDNA mutation. Similar observations were made with fibroblast clones derived from two subjects heteroplasmic for the 11778 (G-->A) mtDNA mutation of Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy. For the MELAS 3243 mutation, the distribution of mutant mtDNA between different cells was not randomly distributed about the mean, suggesting that selection against cells with high proportions of mutant mtDNA had occurred. To explore the way in which heteroplasmic mtDNA segregates in mitosis we followed the distribution of heteroplasmy between clones over approximately 15 generations. There was either no change or a decrease in the variance of intercellular heteroplasmy for the MELAS 3243 mutation, which is most consistent with segregation of heteroplasmic units of multiple mtDNA molecules in mitosis. After mitochondria from one of the MELAS 3243 fibroblast cultures were transferred to a mitochondrial DNA-free (rho0) cell line derived from osteosarcoma cells by cytoplast fusion, the mean level and intercellular distribution of heteroplasmy was unchanged. We interpret this as evidence that somatic segregation (rather than nuclear background or cell differentiation state) is the primary determinant of the level of heteroplasmy.