The human c-MET oncogene encodes a transmembrane tyrosine kinase (p190c-met) with structural and functional features of a growth-factor receptor. Monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) have been used to investigate the distribution of the c-Met protein in human normal and neoplastic tissues. By immunofluorescence microscopy homogeneous expression was detected in normal hepatocytes as well as in epithelial cells lining the stomach, the small and the large intestine. Positive staining was also found in epithelial cells of the endometrium and ovary, and in basal keratinocytes of esophagus and skin. By Northern blot analysis, high levels of c-met messenger RNA were detected in specimens of liver, gastro-intestinal tract and kidney. c-met-specific mRNA was also found in thyroid, pancreas and placenta, in which organs c-Met protein was barely detectable by immunofluorescence. The antibodies revealed expression of c-MET protein in hepatomas (11/14), carcinomas of colon and rectum (19/21), stomach (11/22), kidney (16/19), ovary (9/17) and skin (7/17). Carcinomas of the lung (13/20), thyroid (11/13) and pancreas (5/7) were also positive. In these last cases (lung, thyroid and pancreas) tumor cells were homogeneously stained by the antibodies, whereas in their normal counterparts staining was barely detectable. These data suggest that the receptor encoded by c-MET plays a physiological role in epithelial cell growth and that its expression is altered in human carcinomas.