The cellular origin of estrogen-induced kidney tumors in male Syrian hamsters has been repeatedly the subject of controversy. Several authors have proposed that the tumors arise from proximal tubules, from a combination of tubular and interstitial stromal cells, or solely from interstitial cells. Because of the model character of this tumor for hormone-associated cancer, it was further investigated in this study with respect to morphology, enzyme and intermediate filament pattern, the expression of alpha-smooth muscle actin and the extracellular matrix proteins fibronectin and tenascin. These analyses were carried out with early and late tumors as well as metastases to determine possible changes in expression of biochemical parameters during the development and progression of this neoplasm. The enzyme histochemical and intermediate filament patterns were usually the same as those described previously for proliferative foci and early tumors, i.e. highly elevated activities of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, adenylate cyclase and alkaline phosphatase, a lack of glucose-6-phosphatase and gamma-glutamyltransferase and coexpression of vimentin and desmin, alpha-smooth muscle actin could not be detected in early lesions. In five of 24 advanced tumors inclusions of kidney tubules were found which showed various degrees of alteration in their morphology and enzyme histochemical pattern, but were often directly connected with tubular segments of normal appearance outside the tumor. Like the normal tubules, the enclosed tubular segments were strongly positive for cytokeratin but never expressed vimentin or desmin. Among the 24 tumors studied, two contained cysts which expressed cytokeratin and sometimes also vimentin but not desmin. The enzyme histochemistry of the cells lining the cysts was similar to that of the surrounding tumor mass, except adenylate cyclase was lacking and alkaline phosphatase was not uniformly distributed. In tumors containing cytokeratin-positive cysts, there often were cytokeratin-positive, vimentin-negative and desmin-negative tumor formations in close contact to these cysts. With the exception of cyst formation, the pattern of metastases were identical to that of the primary tumors. All large tumors and the main component of the metastases expressed vimentin, desmin and fibronectin. Mesothelia surrounding metastatic tumor complexes were positive for vimentin, desmin, alpha-smooth muscle actin, fibronectin, cytokeratin and tenascin. It was concluded from these and previous observations on early stages of tumor development that the estrogen-induced hamster kidney tumor originates from mesenchymal interstitial cells (probably pericytes) which may rarely acquire an epithelial phenotype by metaplastic transformation during tumor progression.