The c-erbB2 (or Her2) oncogene is amplified and/or overexpressed in a significant proportion of breast cancers. To assess the role of the c-erbB2 oncogene in mammary tumorigenesis, we have transfected the corresponding human c-erbB2 cDNA into an immortalized human mammary epithelial cell line, MTSV1-7, that was derived from luminal epithelial cells cultured from milk. Three transfectants expressing different levels of the c-erbB2 gene product have been isolated which form colonies in agar and produce tumours in nude mice with high efficiency. We have observed that MTSV1-7 cells form three-dimensional structures in collagen gels and that alpha 2 beta 1-integrin plays a crucial role in the process of morphogenesis. We now find that the c-erbB2 transfectants exhibit an impaired ability to undergo morphogenesis in collagen gels as compared with the parental cell line or the control neomycin transfectant, and that the degree of impairment is related to the level of c-erbB2 expression. Moreover, overexpression of the c-erbB2 product was found to be correlated with a specific decrease in the expression of alpha 2-integrin subunit and in the alpha 2-mRNA. The breast cancer cell line SKBr3, which carries multiple copies of the c-erbB2 gene and overexpresses the 185-kDa product, was also found to express very low levels of the alpha 2-integrin protein and mRNA. Our results confirm the involvement of the alpha 2 beta 1-integrin in collagen-induced morphogenesis of mammary epithelial cells and suggest that the c-erbB2 gene product may inhibit this morphogenesis by inhibiting the expression of the alpha 2-integrin subunit.