Compelling experimental evidence exists for a potent invasion suppressor role of the cell-cell adhesion molecule E-cadherin. In addition, a tumour suppressor effect has been suggested for E-cadherin. In human cancers, partial or complete loss of E-cadherin expression correlates with malignancy. To investigate the molecular basis for this altered expression we developed a comprehensive PCR/SSCP mutation screen for the human E-cadherin gene. For 49 breast cancer patients the occurrence of tumour-specific mutations in the E-cadherin gene was examined. No relevant DNA changes were encountered in any of 42 infiltrative ductal or medullary breast carcinoma samples. In contrast, four out of seven infiltrative lobular breast carcinomas harboured protein truncation mutations (three nonsense and one frameshift) in the extracellular part of the E-cadherin protein. Each of the four lobular carcinomas with E-cadherin mutations showed tumour-specific loss of heterozygosity of chromosomal region 16q22.1 containing the E-cadherin locus. In compliance with this, no E-cadherin expression was detectable by immunohistochemistry in these four tumours. These findings offer a molecular explanation for the typical scattered tumour cell growth in infiltrative lobular breast cancer.