Defects of the mitochondrial respiratory chain are associated with a great variety of clinical disorders. Whilst recognition of these conditions is increasing, the need for sophisticated biochemical and molecular studies has tended to limit both their investigation and diagnosis to a few specialist centres. Using a group of 51 patients with histochemically, biochemically and/or genetically defined respiratory chain defects, we have examined both the clinical heterogeneity of these disorders and how they may be investigated most effectively in non-specialist centres. We evaluated the use of the following routinely available clinical investigations--fasting intermediary metabolites (lactate, pyruvate, ketone bodies, etc.) in blood and cerebrospinal fluid, serum creatine kinase estimation, EMG, EEG, CT, MRI and histological/histochemical muscle biopsy analysis. Our studies show that, in addition to well-recognized syndromes (e.g. chronic progressive external ophthalmoplegia, mitochondrial encephalopathy lactic acidosis and stroke like episodes, and myoclonus epilepsy with ragged red-fibres, a significant number of patients present with non-specific encephalopathic disorders. Furthermore, even within those categories of respiratory chain disease which have been genetically defined, a wide variation of presenting symptoms and signs were found. Where there was initial doubt concerning the diagnosis, the following clinical features were helpful in suggesting respiratory chain disease: ophthalmoplegia; a maternal pattern of inheritance; the presence of myopathy or deafness in association with encephalopathy. Of the clinical investigations we assessed, elevated lactate in blood or cerebrospinal fluid and low density lesions in the basal ganglia were helpful in identifying patients with respiratory chain dysfunction. Histochemical analysis of muscle was, however, the single most useful investigation being diagnostic in patients with chronic progressive external ophthalmoplegia, Kearns-Sayre syndrome and myopathy, and of significant importance in patients presenting primarily with central nervous system disease. The results of our study are used to discuss the most appropriate approach to diagnosis of this group of disorders.