The breast cancer susceptibility gene on chromosome 17q, BRCA1, has now been isolated. Mutations in this gene have been detected in many families with a predisposition to breast cancer. Most of these mutations result in truncation and presumed inactivation of the BRCA1 protein. A large number of distinct mutations have been reported, although some families have identical mutations, probably due to a founder effect. Certain evidence suggests that mutations positioned towards the 5' end of the gene carry a higher risk of ovarian cancer than those at the 3' end. BRCA1 is infrequently somatically mutated in sporadic breast or ovarian cancer. The BRCA2 gene has been localized to chromosome 13q12-q13. BRCA2 carries a risk of breast cancer similar to that of BRCA1, but is associated with a lower risk of ovarian cancer and a higher risk of male breast cancer. Additional breast cancer susceptibility genes probably exist, but may be difficult to locate by conventional methods.