Malignant mesothelioma (MM) is an aggressive tumour of the serosal cavities which is associated with exposure to asbestos. Studies of this tumour have been limited by a paucity of well-characterized human MM cell lines. In this study, 5 human MM cell lines were established from pleural effusions of patients with this malignancy. All 5 patients were males with known crocidolite asbestos exposure, who had received no treatment for their disease and in whom the diagnosis was confirmed by cytology, histology and electron microscopy (EM). These lines have been in culture from 11 to 25 months, and all of them for more than 18 passages. The appearance of the cells in culture was extremely varied; in 3 of the lines they were spindle-shaped with few vacuoles (JU77, LO68 and ONE58); in 1 line they had a thick, stellate shape with vacuoles (NO36) and in 1 they were very pleomorphic in both shape and size with irregular membranes and numerous vacuoles [DeH128 (M)]. Upon reaching confluence, cells in 3 of the 5 lines assumed the cobblestone-like pattern characteristic of epithelial-type cells, whereas in the other 2 (LO68 and ONE58) they remained spindle-shaped. All 5 lines demonstrated a loss of contact inhibition (i.e., piling) at confluence. Minimum doubling times varied significantly from 18 hr (JU77) to more than 30 hr [DeH128 (M)]. Cytological examination showed characteristic mesothelial/mesothelioma morphology, and epithelial membrane antigen (EMA) and cytokeratin were demonstrated in cells from all 5 lines. These cells lacked CEA and epithelial mucin. The presence of cell junctions, glycogen and numerous long, thin, branching microvilli was readily demonstrable by EM. All lines had abnormal karyotypes, with the modal chromosome number varying from 40 to 80. Variable chromosome numbers, numerous structural rearrangements and unrecognizable marker chromosomes were readily observed; however, the only consistent change seen was del 6q21 in 4 of the 5 lines. The establishment of these 5 cultured human MM cell lines now provides an opportunity for comparative study of several aspects of the biology of MM in vitro as well as screening new treatment modalities.