A CHO cell line with a single copy of the DHFR locus on chromosome Z2 was used to analyze the structure of the amplification target and products subsequent to the initial amplification event. Dramatic diversity in the number and cytogenetic characteristics of DHFR amplicons was observed as soon as eight to nine cell doublings following the initial event. Two amplicon classes were noted at this early time: Small extrachromosomal elements and closely spaced chromosomal amplicons were detected in 30-40% of metaphases in six of nine clones, whereas three of nine clones contained huge amplicons spanning greater than 50 megabases. In contrast, the incidence of metaphases containing extrachromosomal amplicons fell to 1-2% in cells analyzed at 30-35 cell doublings, and most amplicons localized to rearranged or broken derivatives of chromosome Z2 at this time. Breakage of the Z2 chromosome near the DHFR gene, and deletion of the DHFR gene and flanking DNA was also observed in cells that had undergone the amplification process. To account for these diverse cytogenetic and molecular consequences of gene amplification, we propose that chromosome breakage plays a central role in the amplification process by (1) generating intermediates that are initially acentric and lead to copy number increase primarily by unequal segregation, (2) creating atelomeric ends that are either incompletely replicated or resected by exonucleases to generate deletions, and (3) producing recombinogenic ends that provide preferred sites for amplicon relocalization.