Metastatic dissemination of epithelial ovarian carcinoma is thought to be mediated via tumor cell exfoliation into the peritoneal cavity, followed by adhesion to and invasion through the mesothelium which overlies the contents of the peritoneal cavity. In this study, we have utilized short-term primary cultures to analyze the effect of specific extracellular matrix proteins on properties of human ovarian epithelial carcinoma cells which contribute to the invasive phenotype. Analysis of cell:matrix adhesive profiles indicated that ovarian carcinoma cells adhere preferentially to type I collagen. Immunoprecipitation analyses demonstrated the presence of the collagen-binding alpha2beta1 integrin in biotin-labeled ovarian carcinoma cell membranes, and cellular adhesion was inhibited by blocking antibodies directed against the alpha2 and beta1 integrin subunits. The alpha2beta1-binding peptide Asp-Gly-Glu-Ala (DGEA) was also moderately effective at blocking adhesion to collagen relative to the control peptide Ala-Gly-Glu-Ala (AGEA). Analysis of cell motility on protein-coated colloidal gold coverslips demonstrated that ovarian carcinoma cells migrate preferentially on type I collagen coated surfaces. Type I collagen promoted migration in a concentration-dependent, saturable manner, with maximal migration observed at a collagen-coating concentration of 50 microg/ml. Migration on collagen was inhibited by antibodies directed against the alpha2 and beta1 integrin subunits and by DGEA peptide, providing evidence for the role of the alpha2beta1 integrin in ovarian carcinoma cell motility. Culturing ovarian carcinoma cells on type I collagen gels led to a significant increase in conversion of the matrix metalloproteinase 2 zymogen to the 66-kD form, suggesting that adhesion to collagen also influences matrix-degrading proteinases. These data suggest that alpha2beta1-integrin-mediated interaction of ovarian carcinoma cells with type I collagen, a protein prevalent both in the mesothelial extracellular matrix and in the peritoneal cavity of ovarian carcinoma patients, may function on multiple levels to promote metastatic dissemination of ovarian carcinoma cells.