Normal colonic epithelial cells consist of several cell types or lineages that are thought to arise from a common stem cell precursor. Neoplastic transformation may occur at different stages in the differentiation of a colonic stem cell to produce tumors that may retain characteristic cell lineage phenotypes. In this study, immunohistochemical techniques were used to identify cell lineage-related markers in fetal, normal, hyperplastic, adenomatous, and cancerous colonic tissue. These markers consisted of secretory component (columnar cells), a purified mucin antigen (mucous or goblet cells), chromogranin A (enteroendocrine cells), lysozyme (Paneth cells), and carcinoembryonic antigen (panepithelial cell marker). Colonic neoplasms, like normal mucosa, predominantly expressed the markers of columnar and goblet cell lineages. Chromogranin A was expressed in a small population of cells in most normal and fetal colonic crypts. Chromogranin A reactive cells were found in 55% of hyperplastic polyps, 31% of adenomatous polyps, and 33% of carcinomas. Lysozyme reactivity was rare in fetal, normal, and hyperplastic specimens, but was present in 86% of adenomas and 40% of carcinomas. Of 42 primary carcinomas, 9% were "pluripotent" and expressed markers of all four cell lineages. In addition to columnar and goblet cell markers, 7% expressed both enteroendocrine and Paneth cell markers, 17% expressed enteroendocrine cell markers, and 24% expressed Paneth cell markers. Two cases (5%) lacked expression of any of the cell lineage markers. The remainder expressed only columnar and goblet cell markers. The markers used in this study appear to identify the major cell lineages of fetal and normal colonic epithelium and can be used to delineate the altered cell lineage phenotypes in premalignant and malignant colonic mucosa.