This study compared colonoscopic findings in families meeting the Amsterdam criteria (A) for hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) but stratified according to whether the familial cancers showed DNA microsatellite instability. DNA was extracted from paired samples of normal and cancer, and microsatellite instability was analysed at up to six loci. Families were termed replication error positive (RER+) when at least 50% of tumours tested per family were positive. Of 26 families studied 17 were RER+ and 9 were RER-. Cancers in the A/RER- families showed no right-sided predilection (P < 0.001). Colonoscopies have been performed on 182 at-risk members of A/RER+ families and 60 members of A/RER- families. More of the at-risk members of A/RER-families were found to have adenomas at colonoscopy (P = 0.095), but these were smaller than those of A/RER+ families (P = 0.19). The adenoma:carcinoma ratio was twice as high in A/RER- families (13:1) as in A/RER+ families (7:1). One of the A/RER- families had hyperplastic polyposis. The others do not appear to have attenuated familial adenomatous polyposis and are similar to the adenoma families or late-onset colorectal cancer families described by others. This study illustrates the importance of molecular technology in separating HNPCC from syndromes with overlapping phenotypes.