Defining the molecular mechanisms involved in cancer formation and progression is still a major challenge in colorectal-cancer research. Our strategy was to characterize genes whose expression is altered during colorectal carcinogenesis. To this end, the phenotype of a colorectal tumour was previously established by partial sequencing of a large number of its transcripts and the genes of interest were selected by differential screening on high-density filters with mRNA of colorectal cancer and normal adjacent mucosa. Fifty-one clones were found over-expressed and 23 were underexpressed in the colorectal-cancer tissues of the 5 analyzed patients. Among the latter, clones 6G2 and 32D6 were found of particular interest, since they had significant homology with several homeodomain-containing genes. The highest degree of similarity was with the murine Cdx1 for 6G2, and with the murine Cdx2 and hamster Cdx3 for 32D6. Using a RT-PCR approach, complete sequence of both types of homeobox-containing cDNA was obtained. The amino-acid sequence of the human Cdx1 is 85% identical to the mouse protein, and human Cdx2 has 94% identity with the mouse Cdx2 and hamster Cdx3. Tissue-distribution analysis of Cdx1 and Cdx2 mRNA showed that both transcripts were specifically expressed in small intestine, in colon and rectum. Twelve tissue samples from colorectal adenocarcinomas and the corresponding normal mucosa were analyzed by Northern blot. Expression of the 2 types of mRNA was either reduced or absent in 10 of them. Several colon-cancer cell lines were also analyzed. Cdx2 mRNA was absent from LS174T cells and Cdx1 mRNA was absent in PF11, TC7 and SW480 cells; none was detected in HT29 cells. It was concluded that decrease in human Cdx1 and/or Cdx2 expression is associated with colorectal tumorigenesis.