A number of genetic disorders exhibit inter- and intra-familial variability. Understanding the factors that control the expression of disease genes should provide insight into the fundamental disease processes and will have implications for counselling patients. Different mechanisms can account for this variability, including environmental factors, genotype-phenotype correlations and imprinting. There is also evidence that, in a number of genetic diseases, gene expression is under the control of modifier loci. In cases where the biological basis of the genetic disease is understood, any genes involved in the pathogenic process represent candidate modifier genes which can easily be evaluated. Alternatively, modifiers can be identified through approaches such as mouse models. Since modifier genes will generally be common and because of confounding environmental influences, linkage analyses in humans will generally be based upon affected or discordant sib pairs. Discordant sib pairs represent an attractive option for linkage studies, because recurrence rates are high and the reduced survival characteristics associated with severe phenotypes will make the likelihood of obtaining clinical material from two living cases difficult. Furthermore, the use of discordant siblings will select for those siblings which possess sufficient dissimilarity at the modifier locus to overcome any shared environmental influence.