The integration of transfected plasmid DNA at the telomere of chromosome 13 in an immortalized simian virus 40-transformed human cell line provided the first opportunity to study polymorphism in the number of telomeric repeat sequences on the end of a single chromosome. Three subclones of this cell line were selected for analysis: one with a long telomere on chromosome 13, one with a short telomere, and one with such extreme polymorphism that no distinct band was discernible. Further subcloning demonstrated that telomere polymorphism resulted from both gradual changes and rapid changes that sometimes involved many kilobases. The gradual changes were due to the shortening of telomeres at a rate similar to that reported for telomeres of somatic cells without telomerase, eventually resulting in the loss of nearly all of the telomere. However, telomeres were not generally lost completely, as shown by the absence of polymorphism in the subtelomeric plasmid sequences. Instead, telomeres that were less than a few hundred base pairs in length showed a rapid, highly heterogeneous increase in size. Rapid changes in telomere length also occurred on longer telomeres. The frequency of this type of change in telomere length varied among the subclones and correlated with chromosome fusion. Therefore, the rapid changes in telomere length appeared occasionally to result in the complete loss of telomeric repeat sequences. Rapid changes in telomere length have been associated with telomere loss and chromosome instability in yeast and could be responsible for the high rate of chromosome fusion observed in many human tumor cell lines.