Focal neoplastic change occurs frequently within the colorectum. Yet, of the several hundreds of microadenomas that are likely to be present within an individual colorectum, only one or two will develop into a clinically diagnosable adenoma. In turn, only a fraction of adenomas will progress to malignancy. The risk that a particular microadenoma will end its natural history as a carcinoma varies according to clinical context. The risk is very low in familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), but relatively high in hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC). This variation is governed by the timing and ordering of the underlying mutational events. In FAP, inactivation of the wild-type APC gene occurs early, whereas K-ras mutations are late events. The converse appears to apply in the case of sporadic adenomas. In flat adenomas, which are known to be relatively aggressive, K-ras mutations may not occur at all. In HNPCC, mutational events are accelerated as a result of defective DNA mismatch repair. The evolution of colorectal adenoma occurs through a variety of quite distinct genetic pathways.