The oligo-O-acetylation of sialic acids found in normal colonic mucins is greatly reduced in colorectal cancer. Mucins prepared from cancer tissue in adenocarcinoma showed this reduction, while normal O-acetylation was detected in resection margin and control cases and total mucin sialic acid content was significantly decreased in cancer vs. control samples. A reduction of the O-acetyl transferase activity catalysing the O-acetylation reaction was also found. A series of cultured human colorectal cell lines derived from the same premalignant adenomatous line, and representative of the adenoma-carcinoma sequence were examined and revealed a depletion of oligo-O-acetylation in the original diploid premalignant line, re-expression in a further premalignant line and reduction in malignant mucinous and adenocarcinoma cell lines. Reduction of sialic acid O-acetylation appears as an early event in the process of malignant transformation in human colorectal cancer.