If a person inherits this gene, his or her risk of getting colon cancer is 50 percent higher than the the six percent risk in the general population, said the research by doctors at Northwestern University, published in the journal Science.
"This probably accounts for more colorectal cancers than all other gene mutations discovered thus far," said Boris Pasche, a lead author of the paper.
The trait, which has been named TGFBR1 ASE, results in decreased production of a key receptor for TGF-beta, the most potent inhibitor of cell growth, the findings said.
With less of this vital protective substance to inhibit cell growth, colon cancer can more easily develop, it said.
"The reasonable expectation is this finding will save some lives," Pasche said.
"We will be able to identify a larger number of individuals that are at risk of colorectal cancer and, in the long term, maybe decrease the cases of colorectal cancer and of people dying from it by being able to screen them more frequently."
Colon cancer kills around 50,000 people each year in the United States, and afflicts around a people million globally each year.