We performed high-resolution allelotyping for loss of heterozygosity (LOH) analysis on microdissected samples from 45 primary breast cancers, 47 mammary preneoplastic epithelial foci, and 18 breast cancer cell lines, using a panel of 27 polymorphic chromosome 3p markers. Allele loss in some regions of chromosome 3p was detected in 39 of 45 (87%) primary breast tumors. The 3p21.3 region had the highest frequency of LOH (69%), followed by 3p22-24 (61%), 3p21.2-21.3 (58%), 3p25 (48%), 3p14.2 (45%), 3p14.3 (41%), and 3p12 (35%). Analysis of all of the data revealed at least nine discrete intervals showing frequent allele loss: D3S1511-D3S1284 (U2020/DUTT1 region centered on D3S1274 with a homozygous deletion), D3S1300-D3S1234 [fragile histidine triad (FHIT)/FRA3B region centered on D3S1300 with a homozygous deletion], D3S1076-D3S1573, D3S4624/Luca2.1-D3S4597/P1.5, D3S1478-D3S1029, D3S1029 (with a homozygous deletion), D3S1612-D3S1537, D3S1293-D3S1597, and D3S1597-telomere; it is more than likely that additional localized regions of LOH not examined in this study also exist on chromosome 3p. In multiple cases, there was discontinuous allele loss at several 3p sites in the same tumor. Twenty-one of 47 (45%) preneoplastic lesions demonstrated 3p LOH, including 12 of 13 (92%) ductal carcinoma in situ, 2 of 7 (29%) apocrine metaplasia, and 7 of 25 (28%) usual epithelial hyperplasia. The 3p21.3 region had the highest frequency of LOH in preneoplastic breast epithelium (36%), followed by 3p21.2-21.3 (20%), 3p14.2/FHIT region (11%), 3p25 (10%), and 3p22-24 (5%). In 39 3p loci showing LOH in both the tumor and accompanying preneoplasia, 34 (87%) showed loss of the same parental allele (P = 1.2 x 10(-6), cumulative binomial test). In addition, when 21 preneoplastic samples showing LOH were compared to their accompanying cancers, 67% were clonally related, 20% were potentially clonally related but were divergent, and 13% were clonally unrelated. Overall this demonstrated the high likelihood of clonal relatedness of the preneoplastic foci to the tumors. We conclude that: chromosome 3p allele loss is a common event in breast carcinoma pathogenesis; involves multiple, localized sites that often show discontinuous LOH with intervening markers retaining heterozygosity; and is seen in early preneoplastic stages, which demonstrate clonal relatedness to the invasive cancer.