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The colorectal adenoma-carcinoma sequence has provided a paradigmatic framework for understanding the successive somatic genetic changes and consequent clonal expansions leading to cancer. As for most cancer types, however, understanding of the earliest phases of colorectal neoplastic change, which may occur in morphologically normal tissue, is comparatively limited because of the difficulty of detecting somatic mutations in normal cells. Each colorectal crypt is a small clone of cells derived from a single recently-existing stem cell. Here, we whole genome sequenced hundreds of normal crypts from 42 individuals. Signatures of multiple mutational processes were revealed, some ubiquitous and continuous, others only found in some individuals, in some crypts or during some phases of the cell lineage from zygote to adult cell. Likely driver mutations were present in ~1% of normal colorectal crypts in middle-aged individuals, indicating that adenomas and carcinomas are rare outcomes of a pervasive process of neoplastic change across morphologically normal colorectal epithelium.

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