Two-color fluorescent in situ hybridizations using probes for alphoid (alpha) and classical satellite (CS) DNAs from chromosomes 1 and 16 were performed to characterize i(1q), der(1;16), and complex rearrangements observed in breast cancer cells from fresh tumors and established cell lines. Six of seven i(1q) occurred after breakage in the alpha 1 containing region and one of seven was dicentric, with breakage in 1p11.2. The five der(1;16)(q10;p10) studied appeared to result from a variety of breakpoints involving alpha 1, alpha 16, CS1, and CS16 DNAs. All had conserved alpha 16 DNA, suggesting a segregation of the der(1;16) leading to a loss of 16q and a gain of 1q in most cases. One complex rearrangement of chromosome 1 also appeared to involve chromosome 16, suggesting that a der(1;16) occurred first, followed by another rearrangement. Both the apparent preferential involvement of constitutive heterochromatin harboring alpha and CS DNAs and the variety of breakpoints spanning along heterochromatin suggest that the important consequence of the rearrangement is not the breakage per se but the resulting imbalance.