Clinical observations and epidemiological evidence suggest that important aetiopathological events that cause neoplastic transformation of the male germ cell may occur in fetal life or early infancy. The incidence of germ cell neoplasia is high in individuals with various disorders of gonadal development and sexual differentiation, such as gonadal dysgenesis or androgen insensitivity syndrome. Increased risk has also been noted in individuals with trisomy 21, idiopathic infertility and low birth weight. Infertility is sometimes associated with small aberrations of sex chromosomes (e.g. low frequency mosaicism XY/XO) which can also be found in patients with testicular cancer. The variety of conditions that predispose to testicular neoplasia and the rise in its incidence in many countries speaks for the influence of environmental factors which may affect genetically predisposed individuals. We hypothesise that if the development of the testis is disturbed or delayed, primordial germ cells or gonocytes undergo maturation delay or differentiation arrest which may render them susceptible to neoplastic transformation. Morphologically homogenous premalignant carcinoma in situ (CIS) cells have the potential to differentiate into a variety of histological forms of overt testicular tumours. Analysis of cell surface antigens expressed by CIS cells found in the vicinity of pure and mixed tumours demonstrates that CIS cells are phenotypically heterogeneous. Comparison of the phenotypes of CIS cells, primordial germ cells, human embryonal carcinoma cells and closely related primate embryonal stem cells reveals various similarities but also differences. We speculate that phenotypical heterogeneity of CIS cells may be associated with their potential to give rise to different tumour types, and may be related to the developmental stage of the early germ cell which has undergone malignant transformation.