Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) is the most widely used tumor marker for colorectal cancer. Plasma CEA levels have been variably associated with prognosis. Since plasma CEA level is multifactorial, CEA gene expression in tumors may provide one precise mechanism to evaluate its functional role. This study evaluated CEA expression at the messenger RNA (mRNA) level in 22 human colorectal carcinomas and their adjacent normal mucosae by Northern blot hybridization using a 32P-labeled CEA probe (a loop-domain specific cDNA, LV7). Both tumor and normal mucosa displayed three mRNA species of 4.0, 3.6, and 3.0 kb in length. The expression of 3.6-kb mRNA which encodes for CEA was dominant and it was correlated with another 4.0-kb CEA mRNA expression. The expression of 3.0-kb mRNA which encodes for nonspecific cross-reacting antigen was weak and not detectable in 8 of 22 colon tumors and 12 of 22 normal colon mucosae. In only one tumor, a 4.5-kb mRNA (which might encode for a new family member of CEA) was expressed. A two- to fourfold higher expression of CEA mRNA (3.6 kb) was observed in 11 of 22 colorectal tumors (2 of 9 proximal colon tumors and 9 of 14 rectosigmoid tumors) when compared with morphologically normal adjacent mucosae. Preoperative plasma CEA levels and Dukes' staging had no correlation with this CEA mRNA expression. CEA mRNA did not appear to correlate with metastasis because its expression in the primary colon cancers with metastases (Dukes' stage D tumor) was not always increased. These data also imply that factors other than mRNA expression in tumor might be important in regulating plasma CEA levels.