Molecular analysis of solid malignant tumors has suggested multilineage progression of genetically unstable subclones during early stages of tumorigenesis as a common mechanism of tumor cell evolution. We have investigated whether multilineage progression is a feature of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL). To identify individual tumor cell subclones, we determined the pattern of mutations within microsatellite DNA obtained from multiple histomorphologically confined tumor cell nests of mycosis fungoides (MF) and lymphomatoid papulosis (LyP) lesions. Tumor cells were isolated by laser microdissection, and allelotypes were determined at microsatellite markers D6S260, D9S162, D9S171, D10S215, TP53.PCR15, and D18S65. Nine cases of MF and one patient with anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL) originating from LyP were analyzed at 277 different microdissected areas obtained from 31 individual lesions. Three specimens of cutaneous lichen planus microdissected at 26 areas served as the control tissue. Microsatellite instability in microdissected tissue [MSI(md-tissue)] was detected in tumor tissues of all CTCL patients. One hundred and fifty-seven of 469 analyzed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplifications contained mutated microsatellite alleles (34%). In lichen planus, MSI(md-tissue) was seen in only four of 76 PCR products (5%) (P < 0.0001). The distribution of allelotypes in tumor cells from different disease stages was consistent with multilineage progression in five MF cases, as well as in the LyP/ALCL patient. Our results suggest that CTCL may evolve by multilineage progression and that tumor subclones in MF can be detected in early disease stages by mutation analysis of microsatellite DNA obtained from multiple microdissected areas.