The metastatic potential of ras-transfected cells has been attributed in part to significant ras induction of proteinase expression. To determine whether primary cancers also demonstrate higher cysteine proteinase activities in the presence of activated ras genes or altered ras protein expression, we have analyzed 60 primary human colorectal carcinomas for ras gene or protein changes together with the expression of cathepsins B and L. Cancers containing K-ras mutations (47% of 60 carcinomas) demonstrated greater increases in cathepsin L activity than cancers without K-ras mutations (p = 0.029), with particularly significant correlations for earlier stage cancers (Dukes' A and B carcinomas, p = 0.006). Western blots used to characterize ras protein patterns in the same cancer/normal pairs have demonstrated that N-ras protein is more highly expressed in colon tissues than H- or K-ras proteins and that N-ras overexpression occurs in almost 70% of colorectal cancers, with or without a concurrent change in electrophoretic mobility of N-ras protein. Our current study has now shown that N-ras protein overexpression alone does not significantly induce cathepsin B or L activity levels in colon cancers. However, carcinomas demonstrating altered N-ras protein forms, in the absence of any K- or N-ras mutations, expressed significantly higher levels of cathepsin B and L activities compared with carcinomas with normal N-ras protein banding patterns. Our data suggest that colorectal carcinomas with either K-ras mutations or altered forms of N-ras protein may increase their tumorigenic potential via the induction of cathepsin L or B expression levels. Our results also confirm that ras oncogene up-regulation of cathepsin B and L activities, previously reported in cultured cells, is a frequent event in primary human colorectal carcinomas.