The invasive potential of tumor cells is usually tested either by in vitro invasion assays which evaluate cell spreading ability in basement membrane-like matrices or by in vivo invasion assays in nude mice. Both methods are laborious and time-consuming. Tumor invasiveness is accompanied by the changes in expression of various genes. The invasive behavior of cells is therefore represented by certain gene expression patterns. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether expression patterns of several genes are characteristic for the invasiveness of cultured cells. We examined the mRNA levels of estrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PR), estrogen inducible pS2 and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1) in 23 cell lines derived from benign and malignant breast tissues using a competitive reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (cRT-PCR) system. We also evaluated the invasiveness of these cell lines by their ability to penetrate into a collagen-fibroblast matrix. We demonstrate that the gene expression pattern of breast cell lines is clearly associated with their in vitro invasiveness. In general, cells with ER, PR, pS2 but no PAI-1 expression showed a non-invasive phenotype, while cells expressing PAI-1 mRNA but not ER mRNA are invasive. Our study indicates that the invasiveness of breast cancer cell lines is characterized by PAI-1 gene expression and the lack of ER mRNA. This suggests that PAI-1 may participate in the invasive process.