We examined the expression of E-cadherin and collagenase type IV in formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded specimens of human gastric carcinoma by an in situ mRNA hybridization (ISH) technique. The ISH technique revealed intertumoral heterogeneity for expression of E-cadherin and collagenase among 12 cases of early gastric cancer and 13 cases of advanced gastric cancer. In the majority of the tumors, we found an inverse relationship between the reactivities of E-cadherin and collagenase type IV. Specifically, E-cadherin was expressed at higher levels in the center of the neoplasms than in their periphery, whereas collagenase type IV was expressed at a higher level in the periphery (invasive edge) than in the center. Advanced gastric cancers with high levels of expression for collagenase type IV in the periphery had a higher incidence of distant lymph node metastasis than those with low expression. The data show an inverse relationship between E-cadherin (involved in cell-to-cell adhesion) and collagenase type IV (involved in invasion) in different zones of human gastric carcinoma and suggest that the relative expression of these independent genes may be involved in local invasion and metastasis.