Genomic instability plays a key role in hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer and in a significant sub-set of non-hereditary colorectal tumors. Recent evidence suggests that microsatellite instability also occurs in various sub-sets of common, non-hereditary forms of extra-colorectal carcinoma. To investigate the role of microsatellite instability in breast cancer, and to correlate this type of alteration with clinico-pathological characteristics, including tumor proliferative activity, we analyzed the status of 8 different microsatellite loci in 28 cases of primary mammary carcinoma. For this purpose, microsatellite banding patterns were compared in paired breast-cancer/peripheral-blood DNA samples. Microsatellite instability was observed in 6/28 (21%) of the cases. Four of the 6 tumors had low proliferative activity, one had high proliferative activity, and in one case proliferative activity values were not available. All chromosomal loci investigated demonstrated microsatellite instability in one or more representative tumors of the series. Shifts in length larger than 2 bp were the most frequent change. Microsatellite instability significantly correlated with the lobular histotype, and with lymph-node involvement. A trend was also observed associating microsatellite instability and large tumor size.