YKL-40 is a mammalian member of the chitinase protein family. Although the function of YKL-40 is unknown, the pattern of its expression suggests a function in remodelling or degradation of extracellular matrix. High serum YKL-40 has been found in patients with recurrent breast cancer and has been related to short survival. In the present study we analysed YKL-40 in preoperative sera from patients with colorectal cancer and evaluated its relation to survival. Serum YKL-40 was determined by RIA in 603 patients. Survival after operation was registered, and median follow-up time was 61 months. Three hundred and forty patients died. Sixteen per cent of the patients with Dukes' A, 26% with Dukes' B, 19% with Dukes' C and 39% with Dukes' D had high serum YKL-40 levels (adjusted for age). Analysis of serum YKL-40 as a continuous variable showed an association between increased serum YKL-40 and short survival (P < 0.0001). Patients with high preoperative serum YKL-40 concentration had significantly shorter survival than patients with normal YKL-40 (HR = 1.7; 95% CI: 1.3-2.1, P < 0.0001). Multivariate Cox analysis including serum YKL-40, serum CEA, Dukes' stage, age and gender showed that high YKL-40 was an independent prognostic variable for short survival (HR = 1.4; 95% CI: 1.1-1.8, P = 0.007). These results suggest that YKL-40 may play an important role in tumour invasion.