Reduced cell adhesion brought about by altered surface expression of E-cadherin has been implicated in invasive and metastatic malignant growth. We investigated the patterns of immunohistochemical E-cadherin expression in 120 breast carcinomas. Furthermore, we analysed DNA from the same samples for loss of heterozygosity (LOH) using three separate microsatellite markers on chromosome 16q22.1. Finally, the clinical outcome was ascertained for 108 patients. 19% (18/97) of infiltrating ductal carcinomas showed complete loss of E-cadherin expression compared with 64% (9/14) of infiltrating lobular carcinomas. LOH was detected in 46% (24/52) of infiltrating ductal carcinomas and 89% (8/9) of infiltrating lobular carcinomas. In the infiltrating lobular carcinomas, LOH was associated with complete loss of cell membrane expression of E-cadherin, although a cytoplasmic expression pattern was evident. In contrast, this association was not seen in the infiltrating ductal carcinomas. In a multivariate analysis, loss of E-cadherin expression was shown to be a significant independent risk factor for a poorer disease-free survival (P=0.019), in particular in the node-negative subset of patients (P=0.029). Significance was also approached for breast cancer corrected survival (P=0.056). We conclude that different mechanisms are involved in the altered E-cadherin expression seen in different subtypes of breast carcinomas. Furthermore, we implicate loss of E-cadherin, regardless of the genetic causes, as an independent prognostic marker for disease recurrence, especially in node-negative breast cancer patients, irrespective of the histological type.