Caveolin-1 protein has been called a 'conditional tumor suppressor' because it can either suppress or enhance tumor progression depending on cellular context. Caveolin-1 levels are dynamic in non-small-cell lung cancer, with increased levels in metastatic tumor cells. We have shown previously that transactivation of an erythroblastosis virus-transforming sequence (ETS) cis-element enhances caveolin-1 expression in a murine lung epithelial cell line. Based on high sequence homology between the murine and human caveolin-1 promoters, we proposed that ETS proteins might regulate caveolin-1 expression in human lung tumorigenesis. We confirm that caveolin-1 is not detected in well-differentiated primary lung tumors. Polyoma virus enhancer activator 3 (PEA3), a pro-metastatic ETS protein in breast cancer, is expressed at low levels in well-differentiated tumors and high levels in poorly differentiated tumors. Conversely, Net, a known ETS repressor, is expressed at high levels in the nucleus of well-differentiated primary tumor cells. In tumor cells in metastatic lymph node sites, caveolin-1 and PEA3 are highly expressed, whereas Net is now expressed in the cytoplasm. We studied transcriptional regulation of caveolin-1 in two human lung cancer cell lines, Calu-1 (high caveolin-1 expressing) and NCI-H23 (low caveolin-1 expressing). Chromatin immunoprecipitation-binding assays and small interfering RNA experiments show that PEA3 is a transcriptional activator in Calu-1 cells and that Net is a transcriptional repressor in NCI-H23 cells. These results suggest that Net may suppress caveolin-1 transcription in primary lung tumors and that PEA3 may activate caveolin-1 transcription in metastatic lymph nodes.