Matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) and their tissue inhibitors (TIMPs) are involved in tumour progression and metastasis. In this study, we investigated the in vitro and in vivo expression patterns of MMP-1, MMP-2, MMP-3, MMP-9, TIMP-1 and TIMP-2 mRNA and protein in a previously described human melanoma xenograft model. This model consists of eight human melanoma cell lines with different metastatic behaviour after subcutaneous (s.c.) injection into nude mice. MMP-1 mRNA was detectable in all cell lines by reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), but the expression was too low to be detected by Northern blot analysis. No MMP-1 protein could be found using Western blotting. MMP-2 mRNA and protein were present in all cell lines, with the highest expression of both latent and active MMP-2 in the highest metastatic cell lines MV3 and BLM. MMP-3 mRNA was expressed in MV3 and BLM, and in the non-metastatic cell line 530, whereas MMP-3 protein was detectable only in MV3 and BLM. None of the melanoma cell lines expressed MMP-9. TIMP-1 and TIMP-2 mRNA and protein, finally, were present in all cell lines. A correlation between TIMP expression level and metastatic capacity of cell lines, however, was lacking. MMP and TIMP mRNA and protein expression levels were also studied in s.c. xenograft lesions derived from a selection of these cell lines. RT-PCR analysis revealed that MMP-1 mRNA was present in MV3 and BLM xenografts, and to a lesser extent in 530. Positive staining for MMP-1 protein was found in xenograft lesions derived from both low and high metastatic cell lines, indicating an in vivo up-regulation of MMP-1. MMP-2 mRNA was detectable only in xenografts derived from the highly metastatic cell lines 1F6m, MV3 and BLM. In agreement with the in vitro results, the highest levels of both latent and activated MMP-2 protein were observed in MV3 and BLM xenografts. With the exception of MMP-9 mRNA expression in 530 xenografts, MMP-3, MMP-9, and TIMP-1 mRNA and protein were not detectable in any xenograft, indicating a down-regulated expression of MMP-3 and TIMP-1 in vivo. TIMP-2 mRNA and protein were present in all xenografts; interestingly, the strongest immunoreactivity of tumour cells was found at the border of necrotic areas. Our study demonstrates that of all tested components of the matrix metalloproteinase system, only expression of activated MMP-2 correlates with increased malignancy in our melanoma xenograft model, corroborating an important role of MMP-2 in human melanoma invasion and metastasis.