HECD-1 monoclonal antibody has been used to localize E-cadherin, a calcium-dependent cell-cell adhesion molecule, in microwave-treated, paraffin-embedded sections from 53 cases of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) (11 CIN I, 22 CIN II, and 20 CIN III), 16 invasive cervical squamous cell carcinomas, and seven metastases. In normal cervix, E-cadherin was expressed on the cell membrane of basal and parabasal cells. Cytoplasmic staining was present in occasional basal cells only. In CIN, the presence and localization of cytoplasmic E-cadherin were found to be significantly correlated with the grade of the CIN lesion. In squamous cell carcinomas, reduced membranous and increased cytoplasmic staining was seen with worsening differentiation. Loss of membranous E-cadherin expression was also detected in 4/7 metastatic deposits. E-cadherin expression (120 kD form on Western blotting) was seen in human cervical carcinoma cell lines (HT3, ME180, C4I, Caski) that maintained the ability to aggregate in a homotypic adhesion assay and showed a typical epithelial morphology. E-cadherin-negative cell lines (Hela, SiHa, C33A) did not show adhesion. HOG-1 was the only E-cadherin-negative cell line which showed a significant degree of cell-cell aggregation. These data indicate that loss of membranous E-cadherin expression may represent one of the abnormalities underlying loss of cell polarity and differentiation which characterize CIN and invasive cervical cancer.