Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) is an autosomal dominant disorder characterized by the occurrence within a family of multiple cases of colorectal cancer in the absence of gastrointestinal polyposis. The prevalence of this syndrome is not yet clear, but it may account for 1%-5% of all colorectal cancers. Prior to the identification of the genetic basis of this syndrome, the disease was recognized by the familial aggregation of colorectal cancers that had an early age of onset, an excess of proximally located, and often multiple, primary tumors, and an excess occurrence of cancers in certain other organs. The recent description of an abnormality called "microsatellite instability," present in almost all cancers from HNPCC patients and in about 12%-15% of sporadic cases, led to a series of discoveries that linked this type of genomic instability to a defect in the DNA mismatch repair (MMR) system. Independent investigators have identified four HNPCC genes: hMSH2 (a homologue of the prokaryotic DNA MMR gene MutS) and hMLH1, hPMS1, and hPMS2 (all homologues of the prokaryotic DNA MMR gene MutL). Mutations in each of the four genes have been found in the germline cells of HNPCC families. A major target for research in this area is the development of clinically practical screening tests for the genetic carrier state of HNPCC.