Recent application of molecular cytogenetic techniques to the evaluation of renal cell tumours revealed four subtypes, each with a characteristic combination of genetic alterations within the chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA. The most common, nonpapillary renal cell carcinomas are characterized by the loss of chromosome 3p sequences, rearrangement of the chromosome 5q region and loss of the chromosome 14q sequences. Papillary renal cell tumours can be divided into two groups. Tumours with a combined trisomy of chromosomes 7 and 17 as well as loss of the Y chromosome are papillary renal cell adenomas. Tumours with additional trisomies such as trisomy 16, 20 or 12 are pipillary renal cell carcinomas. Chromophobe renal cell carcinomas show a combination of allelic losses, which do not occur in other types of renal tumours. In addition, they have a rearrangement in the mitochondrial DNA. Renal oncocytomas are benign tumours marked by normal or abnormal karyotypes with balanced or unbalanced translocations and an altered restriction pattern of the mitochondrial DNA. Although the major cytological characteristics of renal cell tumours, such as clear, granular, chromophobe and oncocytic cell phenotypes correspond to nonpapillary, papillary and chromophobe renal cell carcinomas and renal oncocytomas, there are many cases with overlapping phenotype. Therefore, a classification of renal cell tumours based on specific genetic alterations is proposed.