Cytogenetic analyses have revealed that many aneuploid breast cancers have cell-to-cell variations of chromosome copy numbers, suggesting that these neoplasms have instability of chromosome numbers. To directly test for possible chromosomal instability in this disease, we used fluorescent in situ hybridization to monitor copy numbers of multiple chromosomes in cultures of replicating breast cancer-derived cell lines and nonmalignant breast epithelial cells. While most (7 of 9) breast cancer cell lines tested are highly unstable with regard to chromosome copy numbers, others (2 of 9 cell lines) have a moderate level of instability that is higher than the "background" level of normal mammary epithelial cells and MCF-10A cells, but significantly less than that seen in the highly unstable breast cancer cell lines. To evaluate the potential role of a defective mitotic spindle checkpoint as a cause of this chromosomal instability, we used flow cytometry to monitor the response of cells to nocodazole-induced mitotic spindle damage. All cell lines with high levels of chromosomal instability have defective mitotic spindle checkpoints, whereas the cell lines with moderate levels of chromosomal instability (and the stable normal mammary cells and MCF10A cells) arrest in G(2) when challenged with nocodazole. Notably, the extent of mitotic spindle checkpoint deficiency and chromosome numerical instability in these cells is unrelated to the presence or absence of p53 mutations. Our results provide direct evidence for chromosomal instability in breast cancer and show that this instability occurs at variable levels among cells from different cancers, perhaps reflecting different functional classes of chromosomal instability. High levels of chromosomal instability are likely related to defective mitotic checkpoints but not to p53 mutations.