A total of 226 index cases from high-risk hereditary breast and ovarian cancer families of German origin who had tested negative for small nucleotide alterations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 were analyzed for gross genomic rearrangements at the two gene loci by the multiplex ligation-dependent probe amplification technique. Six large genomic alterations were identified in BRCA1, while no gross rearrangements were found in BRCA2. The six BRCA1 mutations included two novel mutations including a deletion of exon 5, and a deletion comprising exons 5-7, as well as three distinct gross alterations previously reported, including a deletion of exons 1A, 1B, and 2, two duplications of exon 13, and a deletion of exon 17. To understand the mechanisms underlying the genomic rearrangements within the BRCA1 gene and to provide a simple PCR-based assay for further diagnostic applications, we have defined the molecular breakpoints of the deletion/insertion mutations. In all cases, our data point to a mechanism by which illegitimate crossing over between stretches of direct repeat sequences as small as 9 base pairs (bp) and up to 188 bp may have occurred. Overall, we provide evidence that gross rearrangements within the BRCA1 gene locus may be as frequent as 3% in primarily mutation-negative tested high-risk familial breast and ovarian cancer of German ancestry, while large alterations involving the BRCA2 locus do not appear to play a significant role in disease etiology. These findings have important implications for genetic counseling and testing of high-risk breast and ovarian cancer families.