To establish well-characterized cellular reagents for the study of colon carcinoma, we have examined 19 human colorectal carcinoma cell lines with regard to morphology, ultrastructure, expression of tumor-associated antigens, proliferative capacity in vitro, anchorage-independent growth, oncogene expression, tumorigenicity and malignant potential. Cell lines examined were cultured under identical conditions, and in vitro and in vivo analyses were performed in parallel on replicate cultures. Three classes of colorectal cell lines were defined according to their tumorigenicity in nude mice. Class-1 lines formed rapidly progressing tumors in nearly all mice at an inoculum of 10(6) cells. Cell lines belonging to class-2 were less tumorigenic, producing tumors later and at a slower growth rate. Class-3 lines were non-tumorigenic under all experimental conditions tested. By Northern analysis, the oncogenes c-myc, H-ras, K-ras, N-ras, myb, fos and p53 were expressed in nearly all cell lines examined. In contrast, transcripts for abl, src and ros were not detected. The best in vitro predictor of tumorigenicity was colony formation in soft agar. There was no detectable correlation between tumorigenicity and metastatic potential, doubling time in vitro, production of tumor-associated markers, xenograft histology or expression of specific oncogenes.