Mutation searching was performed in the hMSH2 and hMLH1 genes in 20 Portuguese families representing 124 registered affected individuals. Of the 20, 16 fulfilled the classic 'Amsterdam' criteria for HNPCC, whereas the remaining four families satisfied a modified set of criteria. These criteria required a CRC diagnosed before age 50 years and cancers diagnosed in two other relatives within the HNPCC spectrum. A multi-method approach was performed using the protein truncation test (PTT), single strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) with two different sets of conditions, heteroduplex analysis (HA) and denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE). Putative phenotype-genotype correlations were also explored. Ten different germline mutations were identified. Six of these were found in hMLH1 in seven families and four in hMSH2 in four families. SSCP and DGGE had the highest diagnostic yields with the percentage of variants detected above 67% and together HA and PTT had the lowest. No single technique detected all variants. Trends for the absence of extracolonic manifestations were observed in families carrying hMLH1 germline mutations (four of seven in hMLH1 vs one of four in hMSH2). Most of the families with rectal cancer were associated with hMLH1 (six of seven in hMLH1 vs two of four in hMSH2). A multi-technique approach is necessary to identify a high percentage of germline mutations. Seven novel mutations were found in this Portuguese population.