Abnormalities in nuclear morphology are frequently observed in malignant tissues but the mechanisms behind these phenomena are still poorly understood. In this study, the relation between abnormal nuclear shape and chromosomal instability was explored in short-term tumor cell cultures. Mitotically unstable ring and dicentric chromosomes were identified by fluorescence in situ hybridization at metaphase and subsequently localized in interphase nuclei from five malignant soft tissue tumors. The vast majority (71 to 86%) of nuclear blebs, chromatin strings, and micronuclei contained material from the unstable chromosomes, whereas few (<11%) were positive for stable chromosomes. Nuclear morphology was also evaluated in fibroblasts and an osteosarcoma cell line exposed to irradiation. A linear correlation was found between the frequency of abnormalities in nuclear shape, on one hand, and cells with unstable chromosomes (r = 0.87) and anaphase bridge configurations (r = 0.98), on the other hand. The relation between nuclear shape and karyotypic pattern was investigated further in cultures from 58 tumors of bone, soft tissue, and epithelium. Blebs, strings, and micronuclei were significantly more frequent in tumors that contained rings, dicentrics, or telomeric associations than in those exhibiting only stable aberrations (P: < 0.001) and a positive correlation (r = 0.78) was found between the frequency of such nuclear abnormalities and the intratumor heterogeneity of structural chromosome aberrations. These results indicate that the formation of nuclear blebs, chromatin strings, and micronuclei in malignant tissues is closely related to the breakage-fusion-bridge type of mitotic disturbances. Abnormalities in nuclear shape may thus primarily be regarded as an indicator of genetic instability and intratumor heterogeneity, independent of cytogenetic complexity and the grade of malignancy.