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The adenoma–carcinoma sequence describes the development of colorectal carcinoma (CRC) from benign colorectal precursor lesions. Molecular classification of established CRC has demonstrated considerable disease heterogeneity; however, as an emerging cancer frequently outgrows and destroys the initial precursor lesion, CRC molecular taxonomy can only be partially reconciled with histologically classified polyps. Thus, the molecular pathogenesis of some colorectal polyp types, including the traditional serrated adenoma (TSA), is still unclear. Now, candidate driver gene analysis of a cohort of different polyps reveals characteristic, but highly variable, mutations disrupting the Wnt signalling pathway across different histological polyp subtypes. How and when different precursor lesions acquire Wnt disruption reflects important distinctions in polyp biology, dependent on a combination of the dominant molecular pathway and the cell of origin of individual lesions. TSAs preferentially acquire ligand-dependent Wnt activating mutations, which means that the cancers that arise from these aggressive polyps may be sensitive to targeted Wnt inhibition. This paper demonstrates that applying next-generation sequencing technology to improve our understanding of colorectal precursor lesion molecular pathogenesis could also give important and translationally relevant insights into colorectal cancer biology. Copyright © 2016 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.