We have examined oocytes from a patient with Kearn-Sayre syndrome caused by mtDNA rearrangements. In mtDNA diseases, mutant and wild-type mtDNA frequently coexist in affected individuals (the condition of heteroplasmy). The proportion of mutant mtDNA transmitted from mother to offspring is variable because of a genetic bottleneck, and the "dose" of mutant mtDNA received influences the severity of the phenotype. The feasibility of prenatal diagnosis is critically dependent on the nature and timing of this bottleneck. Significant levels of rearranged mtDNA were detectable in the majority of the patient's oocytes, by use of multiplex PCR, with wide variation, in the levels of mutant and wild-type molecules, between individual oocytes. We also used length variation in a homopolymeric C tract, which is often heteroplasmic in normal controls, to identify founder subpopulations of mtDNAs in this patient's oocytes. We present direct evidence that the number of segregating units (n) is three to five orders of magnitude less than the number of mitochondria in the human female oocyte. In some cases, the best estimate of n may correspond to a single mitochondrion, if it is assumed that intergenerational transmission of mtDNA can be treated as a single sampling event. The bottleneck appears to contribute a major component of the variable transmission from mother to oocyte, in this patient and in a control. That this bottleneck had occurred by the time that oocytes were mature advances the prospects for prenatal diagnosis of mtDNA diseases.