T cells from mice bearing an experimental colon carcinoma, and from patients with colorectal and renal carcinomas, have atypical T-cell receptors (TCR). In the present study, further characterization of modulations in CD3- and CD16-associated zeta chain in peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) and tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL) from colorectal carcinomas was performed. Relative to PBL, the percentage of natural killer (NK) cells among fresh TIL was reduced, while a higher proportion of T cells expressing HLA-DR was found. As previously reported, we found significantly reduced levels of the CD3- and CD16-associated zeta chain in TIL and, to a lesser extent, also in patients' PBL. Levels of zeta chain in T and NK cells from non-cancerous colorectal tissue from patients were lower than in PBL but higher than in TIL, with a direct relationship between levels of this signal-transducing molecule and the distance from the tumor. In addition, zeta levels correlated with the Dukes' stage of the disease, since PBL from patients with lymph-node involvement or distant organ metastases (Dukes' stages C and D) had significantly less CD3 zeta than patients with localized disease (stages A and B). Patients' T cells also had decreased levels of cell-surface and cytoplasmic CD3 epsilon. We also observed reduced levels of the TCR accessory molecules CD4 and CD8, mainly on TIL but to a lesser extent also on patients' PBL. Biochemical analysis of anti-CD3 epsilon-immunoprecipitated TCR complexes demonstrated that the CD3 complex was not associated with the zeta chain, either on TIL or on PBL or on lymphocytes from non-cancerous colon tissue, suggesting a defect in the assembly of the TCR complex. Following several days of in vitro culture with recombinant interleukin-2 and phytohemagglutinin, anti-CD3 or anti-CD2 monoclonal antibodies (MAbs), levels of CD3 zeta chain as well as of cell surface CD3 epsilon were normalized. Our findings suggest an abnormal expression as well as assembly of several different signal-transducing molecules of T cells and NK cells, which correlate with the stage of the disease in patients with colorectal carcinomas.