The Hedgehog (Hh) signalling pathway is crucial for normal development and patterning of numerous human organs including the gut. Hh proteins are also expressed during gastric gland development and gastric epithelial differentiation in adults. Recently, dysregulation of these developmentally important genes has been implicated in cancer, leading to the present study of the expression of Hh signalling proteins in colon cancer. In this study, normal colon and colonic lesions (hyperplastic polyp, adenoma, and colonic adenocarcinoma) were examined by immunohistochemistry using antibodies against Hh signalling molecules: the secreted protein Sonic hedgehog (SHH), its receptor Patched (PTCH), and the PTCH-associated transmembrane protein Smoothened (SMOH). The study shows that Hh signalling pathway members are expressed in normal colonic epithelium. SHH was expressed at the top of the crypts and in a few basally located cells, while PTCH was detected in the neuroendocrine cells and SMOH at the brush border of superficial epithelium. RT-PCR analysis of laser-microdissected crypts from normal human colon confirmed that mRNAs encoding these proteins were expressed in colonic epithelium. Expression of SHH, PTCH, and SMOH was up-regulated in hyperplastic polyps, adenomas, and adenocarcinomas of the colon, and SHH expression correlated with increased expression of the proliferation marker Ki-67 in all lesions examined. To address whether the Hh signalling pathway is functional in the gut, the effect of Shh on epithelial cells in vitro was explored by treating primary murine colonocytes with either Shh peptide or neutralizing anti-Shh antibody. The proportion of cells in the S-phase was assessed by bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) incorporation. It was found that exogenous Shh promotes cell proliferation in colonocytes, while anti-Shh inhibits proliferation, suggesting that Shh is required during proliferation of epithelial cells in vitro. It is suggested that SHH is required during epithelial proliferation in the colon and that there is a possible role for Hh signalling in epithelial colon tumour progression in vivo. Copyright © 2004 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.