Integrins play an important role in interactions between cells and the extracellular matrix, and thus have a potential role in metastasis. Expression levels of alpha6, beta1 and beta4 integrin sub-units were measured in a panel of human breast cancer cell lines by RT/PCR, immunoprecipitation and flow cytometry. All the lines expressed alpha6, with the highest levels in the MDA-MB-231 and MDA-MB-435 cells. These grew the most aggressively and were metastastic in nude mice. Low levels of alpha6 protein were measured in breast cancer cells that were poorly tumorigenic and non-metastatic in nude mice, and there was an inverse relationship between ER and alpha6 expression. RT/PCR revealed that all lines expressed the 2 isoforms of alpha6, with the alpha6A isoform generally more abundant than alpha6B isoform. Clones of MDA-MB-435 were isolated by sterile sorting for cells with high or low alpha6 expression, and two variants established from metastases in nude mice were found to differ in alpha6 expression. When injected into nude mice. the alpha6-high variants produced significantly more lung metastases than the alpha6-low variants. beta1was abundant in all lines, while beta4 was not detected in MDA-MB- 134 cells, and in the MDA-MB-435 cells an alternately spliced variant of beta4 was identified. Sequencing of the alternate variant revealed a novel sequence from a splicing event in the cytoplasmic tail of beta4. None of the cells with this variant mRNA expressed detectable levels of beta4 protein. Our results suggest that high alpha6 expression in human breast cancer cells is associated with tumorigenicity and metastatic potential.