Ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the colon, is associated with a high risk of colorectal carcinoma that is thought to develop through genomic instability. We considered that the rapid cell turnover and oxidative injury observed in ulcerative colitis might accelerate telomere shortening, thereby increasing the potential of chromosomal ends to fuse, resulting in cycles of chromatin bridge breakage and fusion and chromosomal instability associated with tumor cell progression. Here we have used quantitative fluorescence in situ hybridization to compare chromosomal aberrations and telomere shortening in non-dysplastic mucosa taken from individuals affected by ulcerative colitis, either with (UC progressors) or without (UC non-progressors) dysplasia or cancer. Losses, but not gains, of chromosomal arms and centromeres are highly correlated with telomere shortening. Chromosomal losses are greater and telomeres are shorter in biopsy samples from UC progressors than in those from UC non-progressors or control individuals without ulcerative colitis. A mechanistic link between telomere shortening and chromosomal instability is supported by a higher frequency of anaphase bridges--an intermediate in the breakage and fusion of chromatin bridges--in UC progressors than in UC non-progressors or control individuals. Our study shows that telomere length is correlated with chromosomal instability in a precursor of human cancer.