Carcinogen-treated rats develop foci of aberrant crypts in the colon (ACFs) that have been interpreted as preneoplastic lesions. To characterise ACFs further, we studied in the unsectioned colon of rats the number, multiplicity, some morphological characteristics and the type of mucin production in ACFs. In ACFs observed 115 days after the administration of 50 mg kg-1 1,2-dimethylhydrazine (DMH), crypt multiplicity [number of aberrant crypts (AC) per focus] was positively correlated (P < 0.0001) with the reduction of goblet cells, and with luminal and nuclear alterations in the cells surrounding the lumen of the ACs. We studied mucin production in the unsectioned colon, demonstrating that ACFs producing sulphomucins (like the normal distal rat colon) were progressively reduced when ACF multiplicity increased, whereas ACFs containing sialomucins (correlated with an increased risk of colon cancer) or both sulphomucins and sialomucins increased with crypt multiplicity. We also studied ACFs in the colon and the occurrence of intestinal tumours in rats treated with azoxymethane (AOM; 64 mg kg-1). A significant association was found (P = 0.04) between tumours and the presence of 'large' ACFs (AC/ACF > 14 crypts) and a borderline significant association (P = 0.057) between the presence of tumours and sialomucin-producing ACFs. We found no association between the number of ACFs, ACF multiplicity and the presence of tumours.