The gastric mucin M1 antigens, markers associated with colonic carcinogenesis, have been characterized by new antimucin monoclonal antibodies (MAbs). These MAbs, obtained against mucins isolated from a human ovarian mucinous cyst (MAbs 19M1, 21M1 and 45M1) and from a pancreatic adenocarcinoma (MAb 96RA), were compared with 5 other anti-M1 mucin MAbs described previously, which characterized the a, b, c, d and e mucin M1 epitopes. Using immunoperoxidase, these new MAbs exclusively stained the surface gastric epithelium of normal human gastro-intestinal tract and reacted with fetal, precancerous and cancerous colonic mucosa, but not with normal colon. Immunoradiofixation studies showed that these new MAbs are directed against 3 epitopes (f, g and h) which are different from the a, b, c, d and e mucin M1 epitopes, though present on the same a immunoreactive high-molecular-weight components (greater than 1,000 kDa) with a density of 1.4 by CsCl-density-gradient ultracentrifugation. M1 antigenicity is characterized by a family of 8 different M1 epitopes which were destroyed with beta-mercaptoethanol (except for the f epitope), sensitive to a 5 hr trypsin treatment and resistant to 5 mM periodate (except for the h epitope). Some epitopes (b, c and d) showed increasing immunoreactivity after 20 mM periodate treatment, suggesting cryptic location. In rat-colon adenocarcinomas, M1 mucin epitopes were masked but could be decrypted using high periodate treatment, similar to normal rat gastric mucosa, thus suggesting the absence of drastic changes in the saccharide coat of the peptide mucin portion bearing M1 epitopes. Cryptic location, periodate resistance, sensitivity to protease and conformational behavior strongly suggest that the peptidic core of gastric (or fetal colonic) mucin plays a role in M1 immunoreactivity. Indeed, the resurgence of M1 antigens during colonic carcinogenesis is due to re-expression of the peptide core of gastric (or fetal colonic) mucins.