We report overexpression of the proto-oncogene bcl-2 in gastrointestinal adenocarcinoma and its precursor lesions. The bcl-2 proto-oncogene is centrally involved in the oncogenesis of human follicular lymphoma via a chromosomal translocation t(14;18)(q32;q21) and is also expressed in the epithelial regenerative compartment or the basal crypts of the normal colon and small intestine. We describe an immunohistochemical analysis of fixed, paraffin-embedded tissue using both a polyclonal rabbit and a monoclonal mouse antibody to the Bcl-2 protein. In addition to confirming bcl-2 expression in normal colonic and small intestinal crypts, we also observed expression in the gastric epithelial regenerative compartment, the mucous neck region. No increased expression was found in nonneoplastic or inflammatory gastrointestinal conditions, including ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, or inflammatory or hamartomatous polyps. Increased bcl-2 expression, however, was present in hyperplastic colonic polyps and in the majority of dysplastic lesions, from the earliest precursors through large adenomas, high grade flat dysplasia, and adenocarcinoma, all in comparison with adjacent internal control normal epithelium. Increased expression was present in dysplastic glandular lesions from all gastrointestinal sites, including colon, small bowel, and stomach. Furthermore, bcl-2 expression was frequently abnormal in nondysplastic epithelium surrounding dysplastic lesions, suggesting that altered expression occurred before the development of morphological dysplasia. Specifically, directly contiguous morphologically nondysplastic epithelium often showed abnormal bcl-2 expression throughout the full length of the crypt-villus axis. This expression pattern gradually diminished to involve only the crypt base (the normal pattern of expression), proceeding away from malignant or dysplastic lesions. Abnormal bcl-2 immunoreactivity in 1), the earliest precursor dysplastic lesions and its persistence throughout neoplastic progression and 2), contiguous morphologically unaltered nondysplastic epithelium suggests that bcl-2 alterations occur early during the morphological and molecular sequence of events leading to gastrointestinal epithelial neoplasia.