The objective of the present study was to determine whether aberrant crypt foci (ACF) similar to those observed in the colons of experimental animals exposed to colon carcinogens could be identified and quantified in the human colon. Twenty-seven colon resections from patients affected by familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP, five cases), colorectal cancer (CRC, 12 cases), and benign diseases of the large bowel (BD, 10 cases) were collected from a pathology repository or immediately after operation. Ten or more 1-cm2 formalin-fixed, methylene-blue--stained samples of colonic mucosa from each colon were scored under light microscopy for ACF. The number of ACF per cm2 and the number of crypts per ACF for each colon were calculated. The average number of ACF per cm2 in the FAP group (20 +/- 19, mean +/- SD) was significantly higher (P less than 0.01) than those of the CRC (0.37 +/- 0.41) and BD (0.18 +/- 0.35) groups. At least one ACF was found in every colon resection from CRC patients and in six out of 10 colon resections from the BD group. The average number of crypts per ACF ranged from five to 35 with absolute values from 1 to over 100. Fifty-five histologic specimens, 43 with ACF of various size and 12 without, were prepared by sectioning the colon parallel to the mucosal surface. There was a close correlation between the number of crypts per ACF in each specimen as scored by methylene-blue and histologic examination. Twenty-six aberrant crypt foci displayed dysplasia as evident by histologic analysis. In these instances we feel the term microadenoma is appropriate and, using this unique approach of examining the human colon, they can be easily identified and quantified. These lesions may well be precursors for adenomatous polyps and colorectal cancer.