The detection of circulating tumour cells or circulating free tumour nucleic acids can potentially guide treatment and inform prognosis in colorectal cancer using minimally invasive "liquid biopsies". Current literature supports the notion that high circulating tumour cell counts or presence of tumour nucleic acid correlate with inferior clinical outcomes for patients, but they are not yet part of routine clinical care. Future research evolves around the examination of the molecular phenotype of circulating tumour cells. The key unanswered areas include differentiating between circulating tumour cell presence and their proliferative capacity and dormancy, identifying tumour heterogeneity and understanding the epithelial-mesenchymal transition. © 2013 Elsevier Ireland Ltd.