Colorectal cancer (CRC) is a common and often lethal tumor. Over the last 25 years, remarkable progress has been made in understanding its biological and molecular features and in elucidating the steps involved in colon carcinogenesis. This, in turn, has led to a more rational and effective clinical approach to the treatment of CRC. While colorectal adenoma is the most frequent precancerous lesion, other potentially premalignant conditions, including chronic inflammatory bowel diseases and hereditary syndromes, such as familial adenomatous polyposis, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome and juvenile polyposis, involve different sites of the gastrointestinal tract with an overall incidence of less than 5%. In all such cases, disease recognition at an early stage is essential to devise suitable preventive cancer strategies. These topics are addressed in this review, along with the most important epidemiological, pathogenetic and clinical features that lead to malignant transformation. Novel biomarkers for early cancer prediction, detection, prognostic evolution, and the response to treatment are critically assessed as well. Continued improvements in our knowledge of the molecular basis of CRC and the transfer of this information into daily clinical practice will reduce the burden of this disease.