In the present study we investigated the presence, amount and activity of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs)-1, -2, -3, -7, -8, -9, -10, -11 and -13 and TIMP-1 in three well-defined breast cancer cell lines with different biological behaviour; i.e. poorly-invasive MCF-7 cells, invasively growing MDA-MB-231 cells and invasive and highly-metastatic MDA-MB-435 cells. The parallel immunocytochemical determination of the degree of cellular differentiation, as monitored by the immunocytochemical expression of cytokeratins (CK), confirmed differences in the tumor cell differentiation. Thereby, MCF-7 cells expressed more glandular CKs than MDA-MB-231 cells, while MDA-MB-435 cells were only labelled by pancytokeratin markers, but neither by glandular nor by squamous epithelial CKs. Conditioned media were analyzed for the presence of MMPs and TIMP-1 using Western blot with specific polyclonal antibodies and for gelatinolytic and caseinolytic activity by zymography. In addition, the cellular pool of several MMPs was investigated by immunocytochemistry. An enhanced cytoplasmatic staining for MMP-3 and -9, MMP-1, -10 and -11 was seen in the highly metastatic cells at almost equal levels, while MMP-2 revealed only a minor intracellular staining in all three cell lines. Western blots of conditioned media showed enhanced amounts of MMP-1, -3, -7, -10 and -11 in media of the two metastatic cell lines. Casein zymography correlated with the results of the MMP-1 Western blots. By means of gelatin zymography, MMP-2 and -9 were detectable in cell culture supematants of all the three cell lines, while gelatinolytic activity was elevated in the media of the more malignant MDA-MB-435 cells. Separate addition of EDTA or Pefa bloc SL partially inhibited the gelatinoltic activity indicating the presence of metallo- and serine proteinases, respectively; combined application of both inhibitors resulted in a complete suppression of activity. We provide evidence that the deviation expression in secretion of various MMPs in breast cancer cell lines of different tumorigenicity correlates with the biological behaviour of these cells, ie. the more malignant cells synthesize more MMPs than the less malignant ones. In addition, the secretion of MMP-1, -3, -7, -10 and -11 was enhanced in the malignant MDA-MB-231 and -435 cells when compared to the corresponding intracellular pool. This analysis confirms previous results obtained in a keratinocyte tumor cell model and provides evidence for a more general biological association between MMP-expression and tumor cell growth.