Carcinomas arising from epithelial cells represent the most prevalent malignancies in humans, and metastasis is the major cause for the death of carcinoma patients. The breakdown of epithelial cell homeostasis leading to aggressive cancer progression has been correlated with the loss of epithelial characteristics and the acquisition of a migratory phenotype. This phenomenon, referred to as epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT), is considered as a crucial event in late stage tumorigenesis. Here we summarize the multitude of EMT models derived from different tissues, and review the diversity of molecular mechanisms contributing to the plasticity of epithelial cells. In particular, the synergism between activation of Ras, provided by the aberrant stimulation of receptor tyrosine kinases, and transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta signaling plays a pivotal role in inducing EMT of various epithelial cell types. Cytokines such as TGF-beta and extracellular matrix molecules are thought to fundamentally contribute to the microenvironmental interaction between stromal and malignant cells, and provide the basis for a broad repertoire of epithelial differentiation. Investigations of EMT tumor models, which represent in vitro correlates to local invasion and metastasis in vivo, facilitate the identification of diagnostic markers for a more accurate and faithful clinical and pathological assessment of epithelial tumors. In addition, the analysis of molecular mechanisms involved in EMT might yield novel therapeutic targets for the specific treatment of aggressive carcinomas.