Gelatinase A (MMP-2) and cathepsin B are proteinases which have been proposed to participate in human tumor invasion and metastasis. Precise quantitation of the activity of these enzymes in invading tumors has not been previously described. We utilized a novel tissue microdissection technique to determine levels of enzyme activity in specific microscopic areas of invasive human colon cancer. Tissue specimens smaller than one high power field can be extracted from the samples and analyzed. Increased levels of pro-enzyme and active enzyme forms of gelatinase A (MMP-2) and increased cathepsin B activity were localized in regions of tumor invasion as compared with a matched number of normal epithelial cells from the same patient. Levels of progelatinase B (MMP-9) were also increased in the tumors; however, we did not observe activation of this enzyme. To investigate the mechanism of gelatinase A activation, we amplified DNA of specific microdissected tumor cell populations using polymerase chain reaction. We did not detect a mutation in the activation locus of the enzyme in any of the tumors studied, which suggests that activation may be due to up-regulation of a tumor-associated gelatinase A activating species. Microdissection of frozen tissue sections may prove valuable in the study of proteinases in human tumor invasion as well as in the detection of genetic alterations in human cancers.