Human breast cancer is usually caused by genetic alterations of somatic cells of the breast, but occasionally, susceptibility to the disease is inherited. Mapping the genes responsible for inherited breast cancer may also allow the identification of early lesions that are critical for the development of breast cancer in the general population. Chromosome 17q21 appears to be the locale of a gene for inherited susceptibility to breast cancer in families with early-onset disease. Genetic analysis yields a lod score (logarithm of the likelihood ratio for linkage) of 5.98 for linkage of breast cancer susceptibility to D17S74 in early-onset families and negative lod scores in families with late-onset disease. Likelihood ratios in favor of linkage heterogeneity among families ranged between 2000:1 and greater than 10(6):1 on the basis of multipoint analysis of four loci in the region.