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Mounting evidence indicates that alterations of autophagy processes are directly involved in the development of many human diseases, including cancers. Autophagy-related gene (ATG) products are main players in the autophagy process. In humans there are 16 known ATG genes, of which four (ATG2B, ATG5, ATG9B and ATG12) have mononucleotide repeats with seven or more nucleotides. Frameshift mutations of genes with mononucleotide repeats are features of cancers with microsatellite instability (MSI). It is not known whether ATG genes with mononucleotide repeats are altered by frameshift mutations in gastric and colorectal carcinomas with MSI. For this, we analysed the mononecleotide repeats in ATG2B, ATG5, ATG9B and ATG12 in 32 gastric carcinomas with high MSI (MSI-H), 13 gastric carcinomas with low MSI (MSI-L), 43 colorectal carcinomas with MSI-H and 15 colorectal carcinomas with MSI-L by a single-strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) analysis. We found ATG2B, ATG5, ATG9B and ATG12 mutations in 10, 2, 13 and 0 cancers, respectively. The mutations were detected in MSI-H cancers but not in MSI-L cancers. Gastric and colorectal cancers with MSI-H harboured one or more ATG mutations in 28.1% and 27.9%, respectively. Our data indicate that frameshift mutations in ATG genes with mononucleotide repeats are common in gastric and colorectal carcinomas with MSI-H, and suggest that these mutations may contribute to cancer development by deregulating the autophagy process. Copyright © 2008 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.