Fluorescence spectroscopy offers an effective, noninvasive approach to the detection of precancers in multiple organ sites. Clinical studies have demonstrated that fluorescence spectroscopy can provide highly sensitive, specific and cost-effective diagnosis of cervical precancers. However, the underlying biochemical mechanisms responsible for differences in the fluorescence spectra of normal and dysplastic tissue are not fully understood. We designed a study to assess the differences in autofluorescence of normal and dysplastic cervical tissue. Transverse, fresh tissue sections were prepared from colposcopically normal and abnormal biopsies in a 34-patient study. Autofluorescence images were acquired at 380 and 460 nm excitation. Results showed statistically significant increases in epithelial fluorescence intensity (arbitrary units) at 380 nm excitation in dysplastic tissue (106 +/- 39) relative to normal tissue (85 +/- 30). The fluorophore responsible for this increase is possibly reduced nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide. Stromal fluorescence intensities in the dysplastic samples decreased at both 380 nm (102 +/- 34 [dysplasia] vs 151 +/- 44 [normal]) and 460 nm excitation (93 +/- 35 [dysplasia] vs 137 +/- 49 [normal]), wavelengths at which collagen is excited. Decreased redox ratio (17-40% reduction) in dysplastic tissue sections, indicative of increased metabolic activity, was observed in one-third of the paired samples. These results provide valuable insight into the biological basis of the differences in fluorescence of normal and precancerous cervical tissue.