Expression and cellular localization of brush-border enzymes (aminopeptidase N, dipeptidylpeptidase IV, lactase, maltase) in normal human colon, colonic polyps and malignant intestinal tumors were investigated with a panel of monoclonal antibodies reacting with either native or denatured proteins. The enzymes were detected on cryostat sections by indirect immunofluorescence staining, or affinity-purified and analyzed by gel electrophoresis and immunoblotting. Dipeptidylpeptidase IV, lactase and maltase were absent from all samples examined, while aminopeptidase N (APN) was detected at the basal membrane of the epithelial cells in most specimens of colon obtained from individuals free of intestinal tumors. In contrast, APN was frequently localized at the luminal membrane of the surface epithelium in large-intestinal mucosa distal to tumors, adenomas and hyperplastic polyps, and from members of hereditary colon cancer syndrome families. APN was also expressed in colonic tumors, where it was present in an apical cell membrane location in 3/23 adenomas and 14/35 adenocarcinomas examined. No correlation was found between tumor-cell invasiveness (classified by "Dukes" stage) and expression or cellular location of aminopeptidase N. Histologically, all positive tumors were moderately or well differentiated. These results suggest that aminopeptidase N is normally expressed in adult human colon, but epithelial cells in the large and small intestine differ in their ways of sorting this enzyme intracellularly and eventually inserting it into different aspects of their surface membrane, a process which may be altered at an early stage of carcinogenesis.