To assess the role of gelatinases in mouse skin tumor progression and their link to the expression of E-cadherin (E-CD), the cell-cell adhesion protein, we used the highly metastatic squamous HaCa4 cell line and several HaCa4-derived clones obtained by transfection of the mouse E-CD cDNA. Expression of matrix metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9) mRNA and protein activity were present in E-CD (-) HaCa4 and control clones in culture, but they were strongly diminished in E-CD (+) clones (E24 and E62) at subconfluence. To explore the suppressive effect of the cell-cell contacts mediated by E-CD on MMP-9 expression, we introduced a plasmid encoding mouse E-CD antisense cDNA into the E24 cell clone. The transfectant P1-clones obtained with reduced or absent E-CD expression showed increased levels of MMP-9 gelatinase, motility in vitro, and metastatic potential in vivo. Expression of MMP-9 in the various cell clones was also negatively modulated by cell density, but this effect was much stronger in E-CD (+) cells, despite the fact that all of the cell clones analyzed maintained the expression of P-cadherin and made cell-cell contacts at high cell density. Our results indicate that in this cell system, the E-CD-mediated cell-cell contacts are involved in the down-regulation of MMP-9 expression. Thus, the loss of E-CD triggers a migratory and invasive phenotype in mouse squamous carcinoma cells.