Inactivation of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer susceptibility genes has been reported to occur via a germ-line mutation of one allele and a somatic loss of the remaining wild-type allele. We investigated the genetic mechanisms behind the second event in breast tumors from 17 BRCA1 and eight BRCA2 germ-line mutation carriers, as compared with 21 sporadic breast tumors. Microsatellite markers intragenic or in close proximity to both genes were used to analyze imbalances between the mutant and wild-type alleles. The actual and relative gene copy numbers were scored by fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) analysis of tumor cells using locus and centromere specific probes. All but one of the informative BRCA1 and BRCA2 tumors exhibited allelic imbalance and loss of the corresponding wild type allele. In contrast to sporadic tumors, however, where allelic imbalance at the BRCA1 and BRCA2 loci correlated well with relative copy number losses by FISH, a simple reduction to a single copy (average copy number ratio 2:1) was found in only two BRCA1 (12%) and four BRCA2 (50%) tumors. The majority of BRCA1 and BRCA2 tumors showed a copy number reduction (relative to reference probe with ratios 4:2, 3:2, 4:3) at corresponding loci, suggesting that a specific physical deletion of the wild-type BRCA gene allele has been followed by a duplication of the remaining mutant allele via polyploidization. Several tumors contained multiple copies of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes without relative copy number changes, implying that loss of wild-type alleles is executed by alternative mechanisms such as mitotic recombination, non-disjunctional chromosomal loss with or without reduplication, or by gene conversion. A paradoxical relative copy number gain of the mutant allele was evident in three BRCA1 tumors (18%), which could be of biological relevance if a dominant negative or gain-of-function model was ascribed for certain BRCA1 mutants. Our results indicate that complex genetic alterations are operational at the BRCA1 and BRCA2 loci in tumors from genetically predisposed individuals.