Although mitochondrial DNA has been implicated in diseases such as cancer, its role remains to be defined. Using three models of tumorigenesis, namely glioblastoma multiforme, multiple myeloma and osteosarcoma, we show that mitochondrial DNA plays defining roles at early and late tumour progression. Specifically, tumour cells partially or completely depleted of mitochondrial DNA either restored their mitochondrial DNA content or actively recruited mitochondrial DNA, which affected the rate of tumorigenesis. Nevertheless, non-depleted tumour cells modulated mitochondrial DNA copy number at early and late progression in a mitochondrial DNA genotype-specific manner. In glioblastoma multiforme and osteosarcoma, this was coupled with loss and gain of mitochondrial DNA variants. Changes in mitochondrial DNA genotype affected tumour morphology and gene expression patterns at early and late progression. Importantly, this identified a subset of genes that are essential to early progression. Consequently, mitochondrial DNA and commonly expressed early tumour-specific genes provide novel targets against tumorigenesis.