Buruli ulcer is an emerging human disease caused by infection with a slow-growing pathogen, Mycobacterium ulcerans, that produces mycolactone, a cytotoxin with immunomodulatory properties. The disease is associated with wetlands in certain tropical countries, and evidence for a role of insects in transmission of this pathogen is growing. Comparative genomic analysis has revealed that M. ulcerans arose from Mycobacterium marinum, a ubiquitous fast-growing aquatic species, by horizontal transfer of a virulence plasmid that carries a cluster of genes for mycolactone production, followed by reductive evolution. Here, the ecology, microbiology, evolutionary genomics and immunopathology of Buruli ulcer are reviewed.