Reductions in cell-cell adhesion and stromal and vascular invasion are essential steps in the progression from localized malignancy to metastatic disease. In this study, changes in the expression of the components of the E-cadherin-catenin cell adhesion complex have been investigated using immunohistochemical techniques in primary tumours and nodal metastases from 36 patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck. For 14 patients the corresponding primary and nodal metastases samples were available. None of the 51 samples showed normal E-cadherin expression when compared with either the adjacent normal squamous epithelium or with normal colonic epithelium that was used as positive control material. In 88% of primary tumours fewer than 50% of cells exhibited normal membranous E-cadherin expression. Loss of membranous E-cadherin expression was more extensive in poorly differentiated carcinomas while, in individual carcinomas, membranous E-cadherin expression was stronger in those parts of the neoplasm that expressed the differentiation marker involucrin. Expression of beta-catenin generally paralleled that of E-cadherin, but in 12 cases there was strong membranous beta-catenin expression in samples that exhibited predominantly cytoplasmic E-cadherin labelling. Expression of alpha-catenin was generally weak and did not correlate with the expression of either beta-catenin or E-cadherin. Marked intratumoral heterogeneity for protein expression was evident for all antibodies, and the abnormal expression of the catenins is a novel finding. E-cadherin is expressed more intensely in cells with greater squamous differentiation, but there was no correlation between the decreased expression of any of the adhesion molecules of the E-cadherin complex tested and local recurrence, metastasis or survival. The loss of expression of components of the E-cadherin complex is a common abnormality in squamous carcinomas and, while it may be permissive for metastasis, it does not appear to be the only determinant of this process.