The role and significance of microsatellite instability (MSI) in gastric carcinogenesis remain unknown. This study determined the chronology of MSI in gastric carcinogenesis by examining intestinal metaplasia (IM) from patients with and without gastric cancer. DNA was obtained from gastric specimens of 75 patients with gastric IM (30 cancer, 26 peptic ulcer, and 19 chronic gastritis patients) and was amplified with a set of eight microsatellite markers. Eight (26. 7%) tumors and seven (9.3%) IM samples (three from cancer-free patients) displayed high-level MSI (three or more loci altered). Low-level MSI (one or two loci altered) was detected in 50% of the tumors, in 40% of IM samples coexisting with cancer, and in 38% of IM tissues of cancer-free individuals. Among the 30 cancer patients, microsatellites were more frequently altered in IM coexisting with tumors that showed MSI (P = 0.003). In addition, patients with low-level MSI in the tumor tissues were more likely to have active Helicobacter pylori infection than those with stable tumors (P = 0.02). In conclusion, this study indicates that MSI occurs not only in gastric IM of patients with gastric carcinoma, but also in IM of cancer-free individuals. These data suggest that the progressive accumulation of MSI in areas of IM may contribute to gastric cancer development, representing an important molecular event in the multistep gastric carcinogenesis cascade.