This review focuses on the genomic instability underlying the microsatellite mutator phenotype (MMP) pathway for cancer. MMP was discovered by the application of DNA fingerprinting by Arbitrarily Primed PCR (AP-PCR) to the analysis of somatic genetic alterations in colon tumors. The unbiased nature of AP-PCR permitted to infer, from the mobility shifts observed in some fingerprint bands, the accumulation by a subset of colon tumors of hundreds of thousands of somatic mutations in simple repeated sequences or microsatellites. We deduced that this enormous agglomeration of clonal mutations was due to the previous occurrence of 'mutator mutations' in DNA replication or repair factors leading to a decreased fidelity of replication. These mutator mutations appeared to be the remote cause for the development of these MMP tumors, whose existence unmistakably validated the hypothesis of 'cancer as a mutator phenotype'. Since these original observations, rapid progress has occurred in the field. The mutator mutations were identified as those occurring in members of the DNA mismatch repair gene family, which are also associated with hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HN-PCC). In this review I discuss the experimental approach that allowed the discovery of MMP and the features of the genomic instability of these tumors. I also review recent developments that affect the understanding of the role of the mismatch repair mutator mutations in the unfolding of MMP during carcinogenesis.