Fifty-one in vivo characterized autonomous single adenomas have been studied for functional parameters in vitro, for gene and protein expression and for pathology, and have been systematically compared to the corresponding extratumoral quiescent tissue. The adenomas were characterized by a high level of iodide trapping that corresponds to a high level of Na+ /iodide symporter gene expression, a high thyroperoxidase mRNA and protein content, and a low H2O2 generation. This explains the iodide metabolism characteristics demonstrated before, ie, the main cause of the "hot" character of the adenomas is their increased iodide transport. The adenomas spontaneously secreted higher amounts of thyroid hormone than the quiescent tissue and in agreement with previous in vivo data, this secretion could be further enhanced by thyrotropin (TSH). Inositol uptake was also increased but there was no spontaneous increase of the generation of inositol phosphates and this metabolism could be further activated by TSH. These positive responses to TSH are in agreement with the properties of TSH-stimulated thyroid cells in vitro and in vivo. They are compatible with the characteristics of mutated TSH receptors whose constitutive activation accounts for the majority of autonomous thyroid adenomas in Europe. The number of cycling cells, as evaluated by MIB-1 immunolabeling was low but increased in comparison with the corresponding quiescent tissue or normal tissue. The cycling cells are observed mainly at the periphery; there was very little apoptosis. Both findings account for the slow growth of these established adenomas. On the other hand, by thyroperoxidase immunohistochemistry, the whole lesion appeared hyperfunctional, which demonstrates a dissociation of mitogenic and functional stimulations. Thyroglobulin, TSH receptor, and E-cadherin mRNA accumulations were not modified in a consistent way, which confirms the near-constitutive expression of the corresponding genes in normal differentiated tissue. On the contrary, early immediate genes expressions (c-myc, NGF1B, egr 1, genes of the fos and jun families) were decreased. This may be explained by the proliferative heterogeneity of the lesion and the previously described short, biphasic expression of these genes when induced by mitogenic agents. All the characteristics of the autonomous adenomas can therefore be explained by the effect of the known activating mutations of genes coding for proteins of the TSH cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) cascade, all cells being functionally activated while only those at the periphery multiply. The reason of this heterogeneity is unknown.