Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs), mesenchymal tumors largely specific for the gastrointestinal tract, have been well defined in the stomach and small intestine, but have not been extensively documented or contrasted with true smooth muscle tumors in the colon. This study was undertaken to determine the clinicopathologic features of GISTs of the colon, excluding the rectum, and to compare them with leiomyosarcomas (LMSs) of the same location. A total of 37 colonic GISTs and seven LMSs from the files of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and the Haartman Institute of the University of Helsinki were analyzed. The GISTs occurred predominantly in adults older than 50 years of age (median, 67 yrs), and most were histologically malignant; four small benign tumors (< or = 1 cm) were incidentally detected, and 10 others had minimal mitotic activity (five or fewer mitoses per 50 high-power fields). The colonic GISTs were typically transmural tumors with frequent intraluminal and outward bulging components. Histologically, they usually showed a spindle cell pattern (92%), whereas 8% were epithelioid. Most tumors (19 of 25) were positive for CD117 (KIT) and for CD34 (16 of 27); six tumors coexpressed alpha-smooth muscle actin and CD117; none showed desmin or S-100 protein. C-kit mutations in exon 11 were seen in 5 (36%) of 14 colonic GISTs. None of the patients with incidental small tumors had a recurrence, whereas 2 of 10 patients with tumors larger than 1 cm but minimal mitotic activity died of the disease with liver metastasis. Nearly all patients whose tumor was larger than 1 cm and showed more than five mitoses per 50 high-power fields died of disease; half had evidence of metastasis. LMSs were typically intraluminally bulging, polypoid masses that showed a histologic likeness to differentiated smooth muscle cells. They occurred in five men and two women with a median age of 61 years. Most LMSs were high-grade histologically and showed smooth muscle actin, desmin, or both. All were negative for CD34 and CD117 and lacked c-kit mutations. Five of the seven patients died of disease, and two had a long-term survival, despite high mitotic activity. These results show that KIT-positive GISTs are more common than LMSs of the colon, and these tumor groups have clinicopathologic differences that warrant their separation.