Laser-induced fluorescence (LIF) of colonic tissue was examined both in vitro and in vivo to assess the ability of the technique to distinguish neoplastic from hyperplastic and normal tissue and to relate the LIF spectra to specific constituents of the colon. Spectra from 86 normal colonic sites, 35 hyperplastic polyps, 49 adenomatous polyps, and 7 adenocarcinomas were recorded both in vivo and in vitro. With 337-nm excitation, the fluorescence spectra all had peaks at 390 and 460 nm, believed to arise from collagen and NADH, and a minimum at 425 nm, consistent with absorption attributable to hemoglobin. The spectra of colonic tissue recorded both in vivo and in vitro are different, primarily in the NADH fluorescence component, which decays exponentially with time after resection. When normal colonic tissue is compared to hyperplastic or adenomatous polyps, the predominant changes in the fluorescence spectra are a decrease in collagen fluorescence and a slight increase in hemoglobin reabsorption. A multivariate linear regression (MVLR) analysis was used to distinguish neoplastic tissue from non-neoplastic tissue with a sensitivity, specificity, predictive value positive, and predictive value negative toward neoplastic tissue of 80%, 92%, 82%, and 91%, respectively. When the MVLR technique was used to distinguish neoplastic polyps from non-neoplastic polyps, values of 86%, 77%, 86%, and 77% respectively, were obtained. The data suggest that the LIF measurements sense changes in polyp morphology, rather than changes in fluorophores specific to polyps, and it is this change in morphology that leads indirectly to discrimination of polyps.