Human chromosomes terminate with specialized telomeric structures including the simple tandem repeat (TTAGGG)n and additional complex subtelomeric repeats. Unique sequence DNA for each telomere is located 100-300 kilobases (kb) from the end of most chromosomes. A high concentration of genes and a number of candidate genes for recognizable syndromes are known to be present in telomeric regions. The human telomeric regions represent a major diagnostic challenge in clinical cytogenetics, because most of the terminal bands are G negative, and cryptic deletions and translocations in the telomeric regions are therefore difficult to detect by conventional cytogenetic methods. In fact, several submicroscopic chromosomal abnormalities in patients with undiagnosed mental retardation or multiple congenital anomalies have been identified by other molecular methods such as DNA polymorphism analysis. To improve the sensitivity for deletion detection and to determine whether such cryptic rearrangements represent a significant source of human pathology that has not been previously appreciated, it would be valuable to have specific FISH probes for all human telomeres. We report here the isolation and characterization of a complete set of specific FISH probes representing each human telomere. As most of these clones are at a known distance of within 100-300 kb from the end of the chromosome arm, this provides a 10-fold improvement in deletion detection sensitivity compared with high-resolution cytogenetics (2-3 Mb resolution). While testing these probes, we serendipitously identified a family with multiple members carrying a cryptic 1q;11p rearrangement in the balanced or unbalanced state.