The gene expression of two type IV collagen-degrading enzymes (72-kd and 92-kd type IV collagenases) was investigated in human colon adenocarcinomas by in situ hybridization. In all cases (18 out of 18), messenger RNA for the 72-kd type IV collagenase was present and located in numerous fibroblasts in the stroma surrounding the invasive cancer tissue. In normal-appearing colonic mucosa distant from the cancer tissue, either no expression or only very weak expression of this enzyme was detected. Also the 92-kd type IV collagenase was found in all samples investigated (10 out of 10), exclusively expressed by tissue macrophages. A very strong hybridization signal for messenger RNA for the 92-kd enzyme was found in a subpopulation of tissue macrophages surrounding invading malignant epithelium. In normal-appearing colon tissue, a markedly weaker hybridization signal was observed in macrophages contained in Peyer's patches. No hybridization signals for either of the two type IV collagenases were detected in cancer cells. Together with previous findings on expression of components of the plasminogen activation system, these results indicate that several nonepithelial cell types in the tumor stroma are involved in production of factors involved in extracellular proteolysis during colon cancer invasion.