Since the first identification in 1988 of pathogenic mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations, the mitochondrial diseases have emerged as a major clinical entity. The most striking feature of these disorders is their marked heterogeneity, which extends to their clinical, biochemical, and genetic characteristics. The major mitochondrial encephalomyopathies include MELAS (mitochondrial encephalopathy with lactic acidosis and stroke-like episodes), MERRF (myoclonic epilepsy with ragged red fibers), KSS/CPEO (Kearns-Sayre syndrome/chronic progressive external ophthalmoplegia), and NARP/MILS (neuropathy, ataxia, and retinitis pigmentosum/maternally inherited Leigh syndrome) and they typically present highly variable multisystem defects that usually involve abnormalities of skeletal muscle and/or the CNS. The primary emphasis here is to review recent investigations of these mitochondrial diseases from the standpoint of how the complexities of mitochondrial genetics and biogenesis might determine their varied features. In addition, the mitochondrial encephalomyopathies are compared and contrasted to Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, a mitochondrial disease in which the pathogenic mtDNA mutations produce a more uniform and focal neuropathology. All of these disorders involve, at some level, a mitochondrial respiratory chain dysfunction. Because mitochondrial genetics differs so strikingly from the Mendelian inheritance of chromosomes, recent research on the origin and subsequent segregation and transmission of mtDNA mutations is reviewed.