Aberrant crypt foci (ACF) are clusters of abnormally large colonic crypts identified on the mucosal surface of the human colon. They are thought to be preneoplastic lesions. The aim of the present study was to compare density (number of ACF per square cm of mucosal surface), crypt multiplicity (number of crypts per ACF) and histology of ACF in colonic resections of colorectal cancer patients resident in two Italian provinces with a twofold difference in colorectal cancer incidence rates. Thirty-two and 26 colonic resections were collected after operation in Ragusa (Southern Italy) and Modena (Northern Italy), respectively, and fixed in 10% formalin. Mucosal layers were observed under a light microscope at 25x after staining with methylene blue. Density of ACF was significantly higher in Modena (median 0.101 ACF cm(-2)) than in Ragusa (0.049, P = 0.001), whereas there was no difference in crypt multiplicity. ACF were classified into three groups according to histological features: ACF with mild alterations (hypertrophic ACF, 73%), ACF with hyperplasia (hyperplastic ACF, 17%) and ACF with dysplasia (microadenomas, 10%). The proportions of ACF in the three groups were similar in the two provinces. Density of ACF was higher and crypt multiplicity lower proceeding from proximal to distal large bowel. Microadenomas were observed only in the colon, whereas hyperplastic ACF were more frequent in the rectum. In conclusion, density of ACF correlates with colorectal cancer rates in two Italian provinces, and shows a positive gradient from proximal to distal large bowel. Histology of ACF suggests that they may be precursors of both hyperplastic and adenomatous polyps. These data provide further evidence of the role of ACF in human colorectal carcinogenesis.