Mutations at the hMSH2 and hMLH1 mismatch repair loci have been implicated in the pathogenesis of colorectal cancer. Tumours with two allelic mutations at a mismatch repair locus develop replication errors (RERs). In the hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) syndrome, one mutation is inherited and the other acquired somatically: in RER+ sporadic colorectal cancers, both mutations are somatic. RER+ tumours tend to have a low frequency of allele loss, presumably because they acquire most mutations through RERs. However, before a second mismatch repair mutation has occurred somatically, there is no reason to suppose that allele loss occurs less frequently in tumours that are to become RER+. Indeed, this second mutation might itself occur by allele loss. We have searched for allele loss at the hMSH2 and hMLH1 loci in RER+ and RER- sporadic colorectal cancers. Loss occurred at the hMLH1 locus in 7/17 (41%) RER+ tumours, compared with 6/40 (15%) RER- cancers (chi2=3.82, P approximately 0.05). At hMSH2, 2/22 RER+ sporadic cancers (9%) had lost an allele, compared with 2/40 (5%) RER- cancers (chi2=0.03, P>0.5). Taken together with previous studies which focused on colorectal cancers from HNPCC families, the data suggest that allele loss at hMLH1, but not at hMSH2, contributes to defective mismatch repair in inherited and sporadic colorectal cancer.