Some invasive tumours characteristically have an abundant stroma rich in collagen, the production of which is termed the desmoplastic response. It has been suggested that this response may have a protective effect, and act to limit the process of tumour invasion. To investigate this possibility, we have examined various colorectal tumours for inter- and intra-tumoural variations in the desmoplastic response. As markers of this response, the distributions of collagen-I protein and myofibroblasts have been demonstrated by immunocytochemistry, while collagen-I messenger RNA has been demonstrated by in situ hybridization (ISH). Evidence of a desmoplastic response was obvious in carcinomas, but not in non-invasive adenomas. In carcinomas, we found that the response was marked in the tumour centre, where morphological features of active invasion have been reported to be absent. By contrast, we found little evidence of a desmoplastic response at the invasive edge of these carcinomas, where features suggestive of active invasion are prominent: in this location, collagen-I immunostaining was limited and myofibroblasts were sparsely distributed or absent. While our ISH results suggested active collagen-I synthesis in the tumour centre, there was little evidence of collagen-I synthesis in host tissues ahead of the invasion front. On the basis of these and other reported findings, we suggest that, while the desmoplastic response may reduce the invasive activity of neoplastic cells in the tumour centre, it fails to prevent the spread of colorectal cancer because of its deficiency at the invasive edge.