Cytogenetic and flow cytometric studies in a variety of human solid tumors have suggested that gross aneuploidy may arise by a process of abrupt chromosome complement doubling followed by gradual chromosome loss. However, this sequence has not been demonstrated directly in serial studies in individual patients in vivo. The purpose of this study was to search for evidence of chromosome complement doubling and subsequent chromosome loss in flow cytometric ploidy patterns in serial bladder washings and/or biopsies from individual patients with early bladder cancer. Fifty-two patients with noninvasive bladder cancer were followed with serial flow cytometric DNA studies for periods ranging from 5.1 to 42.7 months (median 15.1 months). Serial changes in DNA ploidy and S phase fractions were recorded and correlated with histologic and/or cytologic findings, response to treatment and clinical outcome. The data suggest a series of genetic evolutionary changes in early bladder cancer that include the initial development of peridiploid aneuploidy and repeated rounds of DNA content doubling with chromosome loss in patients with progressive disease. It is likely that gross DNA aneuploidy, and more specifically, DNA multiploidy and DNA hypertetraploidy, all arise by this mechanism. The sequence of DNA diploidy, peridiploid aneuploidy, near-tetraploidy, hypotetraploidy and hypertetraploidy is associated with a progressive increase in S phase fraction, and with increasing tumor grade; late steps in this ploidy sequence were often present in tumors that were refractory to local therapeutic measures and tumors that developed deep tumor invasion and/or distant metastases. We conclude that DNA multiploidy and hypertetraploidy are markers of advanced stages of genetic evolution in human bladder cancer.