Breast cancer is known to have an inherited component, consistent in some families with autosomal dominant inheritance; in such families the disease often occurs in association with ovarian cancer. Previous genetic linkage studies have established that in some such families disease occurrence is linked to markers on chromosome 17q. This paper reports the results of a collaborative linkage study involving 214 breast cancer families, including 57 breast-ovarian cancer families; this represents almost all the known families with 17q linkage data. Six markers on 17q, spanning approximately 30 cM, were typed in the families. The aims of the study were to define more precisely the localization of the disease gene, the extent of genetic heterogeneity and the characteristics of linked families and to estimate the penetrance of the 17q gene. Under the assumption of no genetic heterogeneity, the strongest linkage evidence was obtained with D17S588 (maximum LOD score [Zmax] = 21.68 at female recombination fraction [theta f] = .13) and D17S579 (Zmax = 13.02 at theta f = .16). Multipoint linkage analysis allowing for genetic heterogeneity provided evidence that the predisposing gene lies between the markers D17S588 and D17S250, an interval whose genetic length is estimated to be 8.3 cM in males and 18.0 cM in females. This position was supported over other intervals by odds of 66:1. The location of the gene with respect to D17S579 could not be determined unequivocally. Under the genetic model used in the analysis, the best estimate of the proportion of linked breast-ovarian cancer families was 1.0 (lower LOD-1 limit 0.79). In contrast, there was significant evidence of genetic heterogeneity among the families without ovarian cancer, with an estimated 45% being linked. These results suggest that a gene(s) on chromosome 17q accounts for the majority of families in which both early-onset breast cancer and ovarian cancer occur but that other genes predisposing to breast cancer exist. By examining the fit of the linkage data to different penetrance functions, the cumulative risk associated with the 17q gene was estimated to be 59% by age 50 years and 82% by age 70 years. The corresponding estimates for the breast-ovary families were 67% and 76%, and those for the families without ovarian cancer were 49% and 90%; these penetrance functions did not differ significantly from one another.