Tandemly repetitive DNA sequences are abundantly interspersed in the genome of practically all eukaryotic species studied. The relative occurrence of one type of repetitive sequence and its location in the genome appear to be species specific. A common property of repetitive sequences within the living world is their ability to give rise to variants with increased or reduced number of repeats. This instability depends upon numerous parameters whose exact role is unclear: the number of repeats, their sequence content, their chromosomal location, the mismatch repair capability of the cell, the developmental stage of the cell (mitotic or meiotic) and/or the sex of the transmitting parent. It is now apparent that mutations in repetitive sequences are a common cause of human disease, including cancer and disorders which may exhibit a dominant mode of inheritance. Two mechanisms have been proposed to explain the instability of repetitive sequences: DNA polymerase slippage, which may account for the instability of short repeats and unequal recombination which reshuffles repeat variants and maintains repeat heterogeneity in minisatellites. The purpose of this review is to show that no general rule can explain the instability of repetitive sequence. Each sequence of repeats is under the influence of local and general biological activities that determine its level of instability.