The review discusses current knowledge of the biosynthesis, composition and arrangement of the mycobacterial envelope, describes the biological activities of the constituents and considers how these activities may be relevant to the pathology of mycobacterial disease. The envelope possesses three structural components: plasma membrane, wall and capsule. Although the major biomolecules occurring in each of these parts are known, the distribution of numerous minor substances is poorly understood; an attempt has been made to assign them to particular positions on rational grounds. The plasma membrane appears to be a typical bacterial membrane but, though vital to the mycobacterium, probably plays little part in pathological processes. The wall partly resembles a Gram-positive wall, but is unusual in having a layer of lipid (mycolate esters) which is probably arranged to form a permeability barrier to polar molecules. The capsule, whose chemical composition has only recently been recognized, consists of polysaccharide and protein with traces of lipid; the arrangement of these components is imperfectly understood. Constituents of all parts of the envelope have biological activities which may be relevant. The likely importance of these activities in the overall effect of the envelope is considered.