The regions near telomeres of human chromosomes are gene rich. Chromosome subtelomere rearrangements occur with a frequency of 7-10% in children with mild-to-moderate mental retardation (MR) and approximately 50% of cases are familial. Clinical investigation of subtelomere rearrangements is now prompted by fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) analysis using specific DNA probes from all relevant chromosome ends. In our study, 40 children were selected for subtelomere assay using either the Chromophore Multiprobe-T Cytocell device or the VYSIS TelVision probes. Inclusion criteria were: developmental delay or MR; a normal 550 G-band karyotype; FRAXA negative; and at least one other clinical criterion. Exclusion criteria included an identified genetic or environmental diagnosis. Of the 40 patients analysed, four (10%) were found to have subtelomere rearrangements. Three of 40 (7.5%) were found to have an unbalanced subtelomere rearrangement and one of 40 (2.5%) was found to have an apparently normal variant subtelomere deletion. The first of the three with an unbalanced karyotype was the result of a familial translocation, the second was a de novo finding, and the origin of the third could not be determined. The subtelomere FISH assay detected almost twice the frequency of unbalanced karyotypes as those detected by 550 G-banding in our cytogenetics laboratory (4.7%). In addition, subtelomere screening was eight times more likely than fragile X screening in our DNA laboratory (1%) to detect genetic abnormalities in mentally handicapped individuals. Our findings support the view that screening for subtelomere rearrangements has a greater positive yield than other commonly used genetic investigations and, if cost and resources permit, should be the next diagnostic test of choice in a child with unexplained MR/dysmorphisms and a normal 550 G-band karyotype.