Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is maternally inherited in mammals. Despite the high genome copy number in mature oocytes (10(5)) and the relatively small number of cell divisions in the female germline, mtDNA sequence variants segregate rapidly between generations. To investigate the molecular basis for this apparent paradox we created lines of heteroplasmic mice carrying two mtDNA genotypes. We show that the pattern of segregation can be explained by random genetic drift occurring in early oogenesis, and that the effective number of segregating units for mtDNA is approximately 200 in mice. These results provide the basis for estimating recurrence risks for mitochondrial disease due to pathogenic mtDNA mutations and for predicting the rate of fixation of neutral mtDNA mutations in maternal lineages.