Cancer cells contain many genetic alterations, and genetic instability may be important in tumourigenesis. We evaluated 58 breast and ovarian cancer cell lines for microsatellite instability (MSI) and chromosomal instability (CIN). MSI was identified in 3/33 breast and 5/25 ovarian cell lines, and 7/8 MSI lines showed an inactivation of mismatch repair. Average ploidy by centromeric fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) of MSI (n = 8, average ploidy = 2.65) and microsatellite stable (MSS; n = 7, average ploidy = 3.01) cell lines was not different, due to the presence of three aneuploid MSI lines, and two near-diploid MSS lines. However, the variability of the centromeric FISH data was different between MSI and MSS (P = 0.049). The complexity of structural chromosomal rearrangements was not different between MSI and MSS. Thus, MSI and numerical CIN are not mutually exclusive, and structural CIN occurs independently of MSI or numerical CIN. Dynamic genetic instability was evaluated in three cell lines-MSI diploid (MT-3), MSS diploid (SUM159) and MSS aneuploid (MT-1). Ten clones of each of these cell lines were analysed by centromeric FISH and six-colour chromosome painting. The variation in chromosome number was different among all three cell lines (P < 0.001). MT-3 appeared numerically constant (94% of centromeric FISH signals matched the mode). SUM159 was 88% constant; however, 7% of cells had duplicated chromosomes. MT-1 was 82% constant; most changes were chromosomal losses. The six-colour FISH data showed that SUM159 had more stable structural chromosomal alterations (e.g. chromosomal translocations) compared with MT-3 and MT-1, but had no increase in unstable changes (e.g. chromatid breaks) when compared with MT-3. MT-1 had fewer unstable changes than both MT-3 and SUM159. These data suggest that numerical CIN may contribute to aneuploidy, but that selection plays an important role, particularly for the accumulation of structural chromosomal changes.