Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a chronic inflammatory disease of the colon with a high incidence of colon cancer. Dysplasia is a precursor to carcinoma and a predictor of malignant potential; epithelia containing high-grade or severe dysplasia is most likely to develop cancer. The cellular oncogene c-src and its viral homologue v-src (the transforming gene of Rous sarcoma virus) encode 60-kD cytoplasmic, membrane-associated protein tyrosine kinases. For the viral protein or transforming mutants of the cellular protein (Src), a close correlation exists between elevated tyrosine kinase activity and malignant transformation of cells. Previously, we and others observed elevated Src activity in sporadic colon carcinomas and benign adenomas at greatest risk for developing cancer (those with large size, villous architecture, and/or severe dysplasia). Here we report that Src activity and protein abundance are also elevated in neoplastic UC epithelia. Activity is highest in malignant and severely dysplastic epithelia, and 6-10-fold higher in mildly dysplastic than in nondysplastic epithelia. Thus, Src activity is elevated in premalignant UC epithelia, which is at greatest risk for developing cancer. The data suggest that activation of the src proto-oncogene is an early event in the genesis of UC colon cancer.