Molecular analysis of tumor tissue has become a rapidly expanding field in medical research, exploiting the advantages of new technologies adapted to high-throughput examination of genetic alterations, gene and protein expression patterns. Only exceptionally, these approaches have found their way into routine clinical diagnosis and therapy. Microsatellite instability testing has been established as a very powerful tool to identify patients with hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, one of the most common familial cancer syndromes. In addition, there is emerging evidence that microsatellite instability analysis may become increasingly important for the clinician, having considerable impact on patients' prognosis as well as therapeutic decisions, at least in colorectal cancer patients. A better understanding of the microsatellite instability phenotype, its pathogenesis and implications for the course of the disease will pave the way for novel diagnostic and therapeutic strategies specifically tailored to microsatellite-unstable tumors. This review summarizes the current significance of molecular testing for microsatellite instability in several tumor entities and provides prospects of future developments.