The genetic abnormalities underlying hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) are germline mutations in one of five DNA mismatch repair genes or in the TGFbetaRII gene. The aim of our study was to evaluate the significance of simple tests performed on tumours to select appropriate candidates for germline mutational analysis. We studied three groups of patients, HNPCC kindreds fulfilling the International Collaborative Group (ICG) criteria (n = 10), families in which at least one of the criteria was not satisfied (n = 7) and sporadic colorectal cancer (CRC) diagnosed before the age of 50 (n = 17). We searched for microsatellite instability (MSI), presence of hMSH2 and hMLH1 germline mutations, expression of hMSH2, hMLH1 and p53 proteins in tumoural tissue samples by immunostaining. Fifteen out of 17 (88%) of HNPCC and incomplete HNPCC cases were MSI and eight pathogenic germline mutations in hMSH2 or hMLH1 were detected in these two groups (53%). All the 17 early-onset sporadic cases were MSS and no germline mutations were detected among the seven investigated cases. Thirteen out of 15 (81%) familial cases were MSI and p53 protein-negative, whereas 13/14 (93%) sporadic cases were MSS and strongly p53 protein-positive. This extensive molecular investigation shows that simple tests such as MS study combined with hMSH2 and hMLH1 protein immunostaining performed on tumoural tissues may provide valuable information to distinguish between familial, and probably hereditary, and sporadic CRC cases.