Invasion of basement membranes is a key step in systemic spread of tumour cells. To analyze genetic mechanisms involved in this process, we have selected strongly and weakly invasive sublines with stable phenotypes from a primary human melanoma cell line by repeated passage through a reconstituted basement membrane in vitro. The sublines differed approximately 5-fold in their invasive potential. Invasiveness correlated with better attachment and overexpression of the integrin alpha v/beta 3 (vitronectin/laminin-receptor). Treatment with retinoic acid inhibited proliferation in both sublines and invasion in the weakly invasive cells but stimulated invasion in the strongly invasive subline. Northern-blot analyses revealed equal levels of mRNA expression regarding collagenase type-IV and retinoic-acid receptors but enhanced expression of TIMP-2 mRNA in weakly invasive cells. The 2 sublines differed significantly in their respective DNA ploidy when compared to the wild-type Mel Im cell line, suggesting that they represent heterogeneous clones present in the primary tumour. We have started to exploit this in vitro system for tumour heterogeneity to clone genes involved in invasion. By a subtractive cDNA cloning strategy, 12 partial cDNA clones were obtained that are specifically overexpressed in the strongly or weakly invasive subline. These results illustrate that stable genetic alterations lead to heterogeneous subpopulations within primary melanomas which differ in their ability to invade basement membranes and interact with components of the extracellular matrix.