Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which the stratified squamous epithelium of the distal esophagus is replaced by specialized intestinal metaplasia. Clinical management of Barrett's esophagus, like many other “premalignant” conditions, is characterized by overdiagnosis of benign early changes that will not cause death or suffering during the lifetime of an individual and underdiagnosis of life-threatening early disease. Recent studies of a number of different types of cancer have revealed much greater genomic complexity than was previously suspected. This genomic complexity could create challenges for early detection and prevention if it develops in premalignant epithelia prior to cancer. Neoplastic progression unfolds in space and time, and Barrett's esophagus provides one of the best models for rapid advances, including “gold standard” cohort studies, to distinguish individuals who do and do not progress to cancer. Specialized intestinal metaplasia has many properties that appear to be protective adaptations to the abnormal environment of gastroesophageal reflux. A large body of evidence accumulated over several decades implicates chromosome instability in neoplastic progression from Barrett's esophagus to esophageal adenocarcinoma. Small, spatial scale studies have been used to infer the temporal order in which genomic abnormalities develop during neoplastic progression in Barrett's esophagus. These spatial studies have provided the basis for prospective cohort studies of biomarkers, including DNA content abnormalities (tetraploidy, aneuploidy) and a biomarker panel of 9p LOH, 17p LOH and DNA content abnormalities. Recent advances in SNP array technology provide a uniform platform to assess chromosome instability.