By screening members of Finnish families displaying hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) for predisposing germline mutations in MSH2 and MLH1, we show that two mutations in MLH1 together account for 63% (19/30) of kindreds meeting international diagnostic criteria. Mutation 1, originally detected as a 165-base pair deletion in MLH1 cDNA comprising exon 16, was shown to consist of a 3.5-kilobase genomic deletion most likely resulting from Alu-mediated recombination. Mutation 2 destroys the splice acceptor site of exon 6. A simple diagnostic test based on polymerase chain reaction was designed for both mutations. Our results show that these two ancestral founding mutations account for a majority of Finnish HNPCC kindreds and represent the first report of Alu-mediated recombination causing a prevalent, dominantly inherited predisposition to cancer.