Microsatellites are DNA elements composed of short tandem repeats of 1-5bp. These sequences are particularly prone to frameshift mutation by insertion-deletion loop formation during replication. The mismatch repair system is responsible for correcting these replication errors, and microsatellite mutation rates are significantly elevated in the absence of mismatch repair. We have investigated the effect of varying the number of repeats in a (CA)n microsatellite on mutation rates in cultured mammalian cells proficient or deficient in mismatch repair. We have also compared the relative rates of single-repeat insertions and deletions in these cells. Two plasmid vectors were constructed for each repeat unit number (n=8, 17, and 30), such that the microsatellites, placed upstream of a bacterial neomycin resistance gene (neo), disrupted the reading frame of the gene in the (-1) or (+1) direction. Plasmids were introduced separately into the cells, where they integrated into the cellular genome. Mutation rates were determined by selection of clones with frameshift mutations in the microsatellite that restored the reading frame of the neo gene. We found that mutation rates were significantly higher for (CA)17 and (CA)30 tracts than for (CA)8 tracts in both mismatch repair proficient (mouse) and deficient (human) cells. A mutational bias favoring insertions was generally observed. In both (CA)17 and (CA)30 tracts, single-repeat insertion rates were higher than single-repeat deletion rates with or without mismatch repair; deletions of multiple repeat units (> or =8bp) were observed in these tracts, where as deletions this large were not found in the (CA)8 tract. Single-repeat mutations of both types were made at similar rates in (CA)8 tracts in human mismatch repair deficient (MMR-) cells, but single-repeat insertion rates were higher than single-repeat deletion rates in mouse mismatch repair proficient (MMR+) cells. Results of these direct studies on microsatellite mutations in cultured cells should be useful for refinement of mathematical models for microsatellite evolution.