Most of the hereditary breast cancers are attributed to constitutive alterations of either BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes; nonetheless, germline mutations of these genes in 'high risk' families are found less frequently than expected from linkage data. Recent findings suggest that major genomic rearrangements of the BRCA1 gene might account for at least some of the apparently mutation negative cases. We studied 60 affected probands belonging to families with a strong history of breast and/or ovarian cancer who scored negative for BRCA1 gene mutations by PTT and SSCP analysis. DNA was analysed by the Southern blotting procedure using three different restriction enzymes, and two probes obtained by RT-PCR of the 5' and 3' BRCA1 coding sequence. A 3 kb deletion encompassing exon 17 and causing a frameshift mutation was identified in two independently ascertained families. RT-PCR and long-range DNA PCR were employed to characterize the rearrangement that was finally shown to be the result of a recombination between two very similar Alu repeats. This type of mutation is not identified by the conventional methods of mutation detection which are based on PCR amplification of single exons. Therefore, further search for gene rearrangements is needed to better define the proportion of 'high risk' families that might be explained by gross genomic alterations of the BRCA1 gene.