There is growing evidence that Rho proteins are deregulated by overexpression in tumours; and according to some reports, this correlates with disease progression. Our previous clinical study had demonstrated a correlation between RhoA expression and tumour progression in oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC). These findings prompted us to study, using nude mice, pathological roles of Rho proteins in human ESCC cells. Western blot analysis in ESCC cell lines, in addition to cell proliferation and in vitro migration assays, were performed to observe the malignant potential of RhoA and RhoC in untransfected and transfected cells. Constitutively active RhoA, RhoC and dominant negative RhoA (dnRhoA) proteins were transfected to ESCC (TE-1 and TE-2) cells. The stably transfected cells were injected into nude mice, and the growth and metastasis of these cells to the lungs were analysed. Tumour tissues were then examined using immunohistochemical methods for proteins Ki-67 (MIB-1), FAK, MMP-1, MMP-9 and TIMP-3. Protein levels of RhoA and RhoC in ESCC cell lines were visualised by Western blotting, and showed highest expression in TE-2 cells. Results from the migration assay illustrated that both RhoA and RhoC play a role in migration of ESCC cells. In TE-2 transfected cells, RhoC showed greater migration compared to RhoA. By using an experimental metastasis model in nude mice, RhoA was found to promote more tumour growth than RhoC, whereas RhoC induced lung metastasis in comparison to RhoA. Ki-67 labelling index was used to evaluate the proliferation potential of tumour tissue inoculated from nude mice. In TE-2 cells RhoA gave a proliferation capacity of 24.8+/-0.5, which was significantly higher than those of TE-2 RhoC 10+/-0.4 (P<0.01). Strong immunoreactivity for FAK, MMP-1 and MMP-9 proteins was present in all tumour cells. By contrast, loss of TIMP-3 expression was observed in all tumour cells. In conclusion, our results indicate that pro-oncogenic Rho proteins are involved in promoting tumour growth, cell migration and metastasis in human ESCC cells in nude mice. The results from this study suggest that active Rho proteins may induce a transforming effect that leads to a malignant phenotype.