Prostate carcinomas often present an autocrine stimulatory loop in which the transformed cells both express the EGF receptor (EGFR) and produce activating ligands (TGF alpha and EGF forms). Up-regulated EGFR signalling has been correlated with tumor progression in other human neoplasia; however, the cell behaviour which is promoted remains undefined. To determine whether an EGFR-induced response contributes to cell invasiveness, we transduced DU-145 human prostate carcinoma cells with either a full-length (WT) or a mitogenically-active but motility-deficient truncated (c'973) EGFR. The DU-145 Parental and two transgene sublines all produced EGFR and TGF alpha, but the transduced WT and c'973 EGFR underwent autocrine downregulation to a lesser degree, with more receptor remaining intact. DU-145 cells transduced with WT EGFR transmigrated a human amniotic basement membrane matrix (Amgel) to a greater extent than did Parental DU-145 cells (175 +/- 22%). Cells expressing the c'973 EGFR invaded through the Amgel only to about two thirds the extent of the Parental cells (62 +/- 23%). A monoclonal antibody which prevents ligand-induced activation of EGFR decreased the invasiveness of WT-expressing cells by half and Parental cells by a fifth, but had little effect on the invasiveness of c'973-expressing cells; with the result that in the presence of antibody, all three cell lines transmigrated the Amgel to the same extent. The different levels of invasiveness between the three sublines were independent of cell proliferation. These findings demonstrated that EGFR-mediated signals increase tumor cell invasiveness and suggested that domains in the carboxy-terminus are required to signal invasiveness. As an initial investigation into the mechanisms underlying the EGFR-mediated enhanced invasiveness, we determined whether these cells presented different collagenolytic activity, as the major constituents of Amgel are collagen types I and IV. All three sublines secreted easily detectable levels of gelatin-directed proteases and TIMP-1, with WT cells secreting equivalent or lower levels of proteases. The proteolytic balance in these cells did not correlate with invasiveness. These data suggest that the TGF alpha-EGFR autocrine loop promotes invasiveness and that this is accomplished by signalling cell properties other than differential secretion of collagenolytic activity.