Genetic instability has long been hypothesized to be a cardinal feature of cancer. Recent work has strengthened the proposal that mutational alterations conferring instability occur early during tumour formation. The ensuing genetic instability drives tumour progression by generating mutations in oncogenes and tumour-suppressor genes. These mutant genes provide cancer cells with a selective growth advantage, thereby leading to the clonal outgrowth of a tumour. Here, we discuss the role of genetic instability in tumour formation and outline future work necessary to substantiate the genetic instability hypothesis.