There are two well-defined pathways for colorectal carcinogenesis, the suppressor and the mutator pathways. The latter is characteristic of hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), but can also be found in a subset of sporadic colorectal cancer (SCC) possessing distinctive clinical and pathological features, namely early age of onset, location in the right colon, poor differentiation, and a predominant mucinous component. This mutator pathway results from inactivation of mismatch repair (MMR) genes, namely MSH2 and MLH1. The aim of this study was to ascertain if abnormal MMR protein gene expression is a good indicator for identifying tumours from the mutator pathway. Seventy-six cases of SCC were studied by immunohistochemistry using two monoclonal mouse antibodies that react against MSH2 and MLH1 protein gene products. Immunoexpression was assessed both in tumour and in non-neoplastic, adjacent and distant mucosa. Microsatellite instability (MSI) was detected by evaluating the length of poly(CA) repeated sequences at seven loci, or by the detection of small unstable alleles in a poly(A) repeat - BAT-26. Except for BAT-26, in which only tumour DNA was used, MSI analysis was performed in both tumour and normal mucosal DNA. MSI was classified as high (MSI-H), low (MSI-L) or stable (MSS). Abnormal protein expression was found in 9/76 (12%) tumours. Immunohistochemistry for hmlh1 and hmsh2 detected 75% of MSI-H. There was also a highly significant correlation between the observed immunoexpression and several clinical and pathological characteristics described as the phenotypic profile of the mutator pathway, such as right-sided location (p=0.003), mucin production (p=0.008), and a peritumoural lymphoid infiltrate (p=0.009). Non-neoplastic adjacent mucosa showed normal hMSH2 expression in all cases, but in ten cases there was no hMLH1 expression in this transitional mucosa, which is known to display an alterated mucin pattern and a high proliferative rate. These results demonstrated a good correlation between hMLH1 and hMSH2 gene immunoexpression and the clinico-pathological features characteristic of the mutator phenotype and support the use of this method as a rapid and efficient way to detect tumours arising from this pathway.