Defective DNA mismatch repair in human tumors leads to genome-wide instability of microsatellite repeats and a molecular phenotype referred to as microsatellite instability (MSI). MSI has been reported in a variety of cancers and is a consistent feature of tumors from patients with hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer. Approximately 20% of cancers of the uterine endometrium, the fifth most common cancer of women world-wide, exhibit MSI. Although the frequency of MSI is higher in endometrial cancers than in any other common malignancy, the genetic basis of MSI in these tumors has remained elusive. We investigated the role that methylation of the MLH1 DNA mismatch repair gene plays in the genesis of MSI in a large series of sporadic endometrial cancers. The MLH1 promoter was methylated in 41 of 53 (77%) MSI-positive cancers investigated. In MSI-negative tumors on the other hand, there was evidence for limited methylation in only one of 11 tumors studied. Immunohistochemical investigation of a subset of the tumors revealed that methylation of the MLH1 promoter in MSI-positive tumors was associated with loss of MLH1 expression. Immunohistochemistry proved that two MSI-positive tumors lacking MLH1 methylation failed to express the MSH2 mismatch repair gene. Both of these cancers came from women who had family and medical histories suggestive of inherited cancer susceptibility. These observations suggest that epigenetic changes in the MLH1 locus account for MSI in most cases of sporadic endometrial cancers and provide additional evidence that the MSH2 gene may contribute substantially to inherited forms of endometrial cancer.