Sarcomas can be divided into those with specific translocations displaying monotonous cytomorphology, and those with complex karyotypes and marked cellular pleomorphism. Telomeres contain terminal DNA sequence repeats that maintain chromosomal stability. Telomeres shorten with cell division and may become dysfunctional leading to chromosomal instability. Using a fluorescence in situ hybridization/immunofluorescence method to assess telomere lengths in archival tissues we analyzed these two types of sarcomas using paraffin-embedded primary tumor specimens. Tissues from nine sarcomas with characteristic translocations (two synovial sarcomas, two alveolar rhabdomyosarcomas, two desmoplastic round cell tumors, and one each of infantile fibrosarcoma, myxoid liposarcoma, cellular congenital mesoblastic nephroma) and nine without (four malignant fibrous histiocytomas, two leiomyosarcomas, one pleomorphic rhabdomyosarcoma, one dedifferentiated chondrosarcoma, and one malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor) were analyzed. In all (nine of nine) cases with specific translocations, which generally have few karyotypic abnormalities, telomere lengths were similar to or reduced compared to surrounding nonneoplastic tissues. In contrast, telomeres in cases lacking specific translocations, which generally contain complex karyotypes, were often found to be dramatically lengthened and heterogeneous. In addition to markedly elongated telomeres, seven of nine (78%) complex cases exhibited large brightly stained regions corresponding to a specific type of promyelocytic leukemia nuclear body found in immortalized cells that maintain telomeres in a telomerase-independent manner [alternative lengthening of telomeres (ALT) pathway]. This phenotype is unlike that of epithelial neoplasms that typically display complex karyotypes with abnormally short telomeres maintained by the enzyme telomerase. The discovery of heterogeneous telomere lengths and evidence of the ALT pathway in the majority of sarcomas with complex karyotypes supports the existence of a telomere maintenance pathway incapable of full karyotypic stabilization in pleomorphic sarcomas. These findings provide additional molecular-genetic evidence supporting the dichotomous grouping of sarcomas into those with characteristic signature translocations without extensive additional karyotypic abnormalities, and those without such signature translocations that typically display very complex karyotypes, and point to telomere dysfunction as a plausible contributor to the chromosomal aberrations found in complex sarcomas.