Intermediate filaments (IFs) of the cytokeratin (CK) type are cytoskeletal elements typical for epithelial differentiation. However, in diverse transformed culture lines of non-epithelial origin, rare cells emerge spontaneously, which synthesize, in addition to their vimentin IFs, CKs 8 and 18. We enriched such cells by cloning and studied the level(s) of regulation at which these changes occur. We found that in SV40-transformed fibroblasts the CK 18 gene is constitutively transcribed into translatable mRNA but that the protein is rapidly degraded in the absence of its complex partner, CK 8. In contrast, cells immunocytochemically positive for CK IFs contained both CKs 8 and 18, which apparently stabilized in heterotypic complexes. These findings and related observations of active genes for CKs 8 and/or 18 in several other transformed non-epithelial cell lines indicate that the genes for CKs 18 and, less frequently, 8 can be active in diverse different non-epithelial cell lines; synthesis of type I and type II CK pair partners can be uncoupled; control of CK IF formation can take place at different levels. We suggest that the intrinsic instability of the inactive state of these genes is responsible for the occurrence of CKs 8 and 18 in certain non-epithelial tissues and tumors, a caveat in tumor diagnosis.