When methionine (Met), an essential amino acid, was substituted for by its precursor homocysteine (Hcy) in the culture medium, normal cells such as fibroblasts proliferated normally. In contrast, many tumor cells failed to grow or grew at a lower rate. Met dependency is acquired simultaneously with cell transformation, as observed with HBL 100, a human mammary epithelial cell line that acquired increased malignancy as a function of in vitro passage number, and NIH/3T3 (J10), a mouse fibroblast line transformed by transfection with the human HRAS oncogene. A relationship was observed between Met dependency and metastatic potential of the RMS-21, RMS-S4T, and RMS-J1 sublines derived from RMS-0, a rat rhabdomyosarcoma cell line: the higher the metastatic potential of the cell line, the higher the concentration of Met required to maintain its proliferation. Met-independent cells derived from the RMS-0 line, obtained by a progressive decrease of Met in the culture medium lost their tumorigenicity when injected into rats fed with Met-deprived diets. In addition, the in vitro motility of RMS-S4T tumor cells, a marker of metastatic capability, decreased in Met-free Hcy-complemented (Met- Hcy+) medium. Similarly, RMS-0 tumor cells, preincubated in a Met- Hcy+ culture medium for 24 hours, evidenced a decreased capacity to form lung colonies when injected into syngeneic rats: the median number of lung colonies was 27 and 3 (P less than .05) for cells cultivated in Met+ Hcy- and Met- Hcy+ media, respectively. An amino acid-defined mixture reproducing casein composition was used as a protein source in the diets fed to RMS-J1 tumor-bearing rats. Dietary substitution of Hcy for Met (i.e., met deprivation) resulted in decreased tumor growth (from 44.4 +/- 1.0 to 40.6 +/- 1.4; P less than .05) and prevention of metastatic spread (from 37 to 0; P less than .05). In conclusion, exogenous Met can be substituted for Hcy to maintain the survival of normal cells but is essential for tumor cell growth in vivo as well as in vitro. Therefore, this defect of cancerous versus normal cells could be used for a therapeutic purpose.