AIMS: To study the expression of the epithelial adhesion molecule E-cadherin and its associated proteins alpha and beta catenin in paraffin sections of normal ovaries, benign cystadenomas and ovarian carcinomas, and in immortalized normal ovarian surface epithelial cells and ovarian carcinoma cells in culture. METHODS AND RESULTS: Immunocytochemistry was used to study expression of the proteins in paraffin sections and western blotting was used to determine levels of expression of the proteins in cell extracts. E-cadherin expression was found to be absent in ovarian surface epithelial cells in culture and infrequently expressed in normal ovarian surface epithelial cells in vivo, although apical punctate staining was occasionally seen. Seven of nine benign cystadenomas and 29/34 epithelial ovarian carcinomas showed some expression of E-cadherin, but expression was absent in poorly differentiated tumours. Expression of alpha and beta catenin was consistently detected on the lateral membranes of normal ovarian epithelium and benign cystadenomas. alpha and beta catenin expression was lost in 18% and 21% of ovarian carcinomas, respectively: other ovarian carcinomas expressed these proteins at a reduced level. A small number of these tumours showed a diffuse cytoplasmic rather than membranous staining. Reduced staining for alpha and beta catenin appeared to correlate with a more spindly, less adhesive morphology and increased invasive potential in matrigel. CONCLUSIONS: The results suggest that E-cadherin expression is generally induced in well differentiated ovarian cancers. In contrast, alpha and beta catenins are consistently expressed in the normal ovarian surface epithelium and benign tumours, but are sometimes reduced or absent in ovarian carcinomas. It is likely that the catenins associate with membrane proteins other than E-cadherin in ovarian epithelium, and they may possibly function as tumour suppressors in this epithelium.