Floor of the mouth squamous cell carcinomas exhibit many characteristics that suggest they represent a distinct biological subset within head and neck tumors. The features of preinvasive lateral intraepithelial spread, high rate of conversion of intraepithelial neoplasia to invasive carcinoma, and high incidence of occult metastases, suggest the importance of motility-associated proteins in the pathogenesis of these lesions. Two such proteins, tenascin and beta 6 integrin, are generally overexpressed in squamous carcinomas, and may play a central role in the invasive process of floor of the mouth lesions. The purpose of this study was to evaluate in situ and invasive squamous cell carcinomas from the floor of the mouth for the expression of tenascin and beta 6 integrin. Twenty lesions each of floor of the mouth in situ carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas, and 10 normal controls were stained for tenascin and beta 6 using a standard immunohistochemical protocol for formalin-fixed specimens. Sections were assessed for staining intensity, pattern, and co-localization. Tenascin was highly expressed at the keratinocyte-connective tissue interface of both in situ and invasive carcinomas. beta 6 was expressed in basal keratinocytes of all in situ and invasive lesions, but was not evident in any of the control epithelia. There was no significant difference in staining of in situ and invasive carcinomas, but there was a significant difference in staining between these lesions and controls. Staining was colocalized in serial sections, supporting a receptor-ligand relationship. Both tenascin and beta 6 were weakly expressed in dysplastic areas adjacent to carcinomas suggesting that changes in the expression of these proteins occurs prior to the invasive phenotype. We conclude that tenascin and beta 6 are overexpressed in in situ and invasive floor of the mouth carcinomas, but that transgression of the basement membrane by neoplastic epithelial cells requires additional changes to the keratinocyte molecular profile.