The organ-specific metastasis characterizes several human cancers, including colon carcinoma, a disease that frequently involves metastases in the liver. The data on the molecular mechanisms of liver metastasis would therefore be highly useful for prognostic purposes. Although the upregulation/amplification of the hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) receptor, c-met, has been frequently observed in colon cancer metastasis, the actual functional significance of the feature in the liver metastatization is not yet known. We have used three human colon carcinoma cell lines (HT29, HT25 and WiDr), characterized by different liver metastatic potentials in SCID mice, to analyze the expression of c-met and the biological effects of HGF. We found that HGF induces scattering in in vitro liver-metastatic cell lines (HT25 and WiDr) only at doses which are non-mitogenic (1-20 ng/ml). Analysis of the c-met expression revealed that the metastatic cell lines express authentic c-met gene and protein material, unlike the non-metastatic HT29 cell line, which expresses only the c-terminal cytoplasmic domain of the c-met beta-chain. Interestingly, c-met was found to be localized in the substrate-attached peripheral membrane and partially colocalized with phosphotyrosine-proteins in the metastatic cells only when kept on fibronectin. On the other hand, we have analyzed 86 primary human colon cancers in Dukes' B (invasive but non-metastatic) and C (invasive and lymph node metastatic) stages. Western blotting of the proteins isolated from the tumor tissues and immunohistochemical control study on the paraffin samples of a third of these cases (25/86) all indicated a significant upregulation of the c-met protein in the Dukes' C tumor glands compared to the Dukes' B stages (P < 0.001 and P < 0.05, respectively). Since the two stages differ in the involvement of the regional lymph nodes but not in the invasion depth, the clinicopathological data and our experimental findings further support the notion that the c-met expression in human colon cancer can be considered as a marker of the metastatic potential due to its involvement in the generation of the motility signal.