Under non-epidemic conditions, Neisseria meningitidis causes disease primarily in children under the age of 5 and the cases are sporadic without any evident relationship between them. Occasionally, localized outbreaks of meningococcal disease occur, and sometimes epidemic waves of disease may spread to several countries or even continents and constitute a pandemic. In the past 10 years or so, population genetic analyses have provided insights into the biology of the bacterium and the epidemiology of meningococcal disease, improving our understanding of the cause of epidemics. Through the application of molecular methods, and especially multilocus enzyme electrophoresis, to N. meningitidis strains of worldwide origin, it has been possible to identify virulent clones and provide a surveillance system to warn of meningococcal epidemics. The characteristics of the predominant clones which are nowadays causing meningococcal disease in the world are summarized here and the importance of population genetics in interpreting the epidemiological data is illustrated.