Transforming growth factor-beta (TGFbeta1) enhances human MDA-MB-231 breast tumour cell invasion of reconstituted basement membrane in vitro but does not inhibit proliferation of this cell line. In contrast to basal invasion, which is plasmin-, urokinase (uPA)-, tissue-type plasminogen activator (t-PA)-, matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-9- and TIMP-1-inhibitable MMP-dependent, TGFbeta1 enhanced-invasion is dependent upon plasmin and uPA activity but does not appear to involve t-PA-, MMP9- or TIMP-1-inhibitable MMPs, as judged by inhibitor studies. Enhanced invasion is associated with increased u-PA, UPAR, PAI-1, MT-MMP-1, MMP-9 and TIMP-1 expression; with reduced t-PA, MMP-1 and MMP-3 expression; and with the induction of membrane MMP-9 association. The net result of these changes includes increased secreted, but not membrane-associated, uPA levels and activity and reduced secreted levels of plasmin and APMA-activatable gelatinolytic, collagenolytic and caseinolytic MMP activity but no change in membrane-associated gelatinolytic activity, despite increased MT-MMP-1 expression and MMP-9 membrane association. TGFbeta1 does not induce MMP-2 expression. Our data indicate that TGFbeta1 can promote the malignant behaviour of MDA-MB-231 cells refractory to TGFbeta1-mediated proliferation control by enhancing their invasive capacity. We suggest that this results from the action of a uPA/plasmin-dependent mechanism resulting from stimulation of uPA expression, secretion and subsequent activity, despite elevated PAI-1 inhibitor levels.