This study examined the expression of MMP-2 and MMP-9 in normal and human malignant oral keratinocytes. The expression of pro-MMP-2 and pro-MMP-9 was heterogeneous in the malignant cell lines. Normal oral keratinocytes expressed less pro-MMP-2 and more pro-MMP-9 than their malignant counterparts. Cells that expressed high levels of both MMP-2 and MMP-9 showed the greatest degree of invasion through Matrigel in vitro compared to cells with either low or variable levels of these enzymes; normal keratinocytes were non-invasive in these conditions. The degree to which the cells invaded through Matrigel was similar to their motility in the absence of Matrigel and was not influenced by the activation of the pro-enzymes or the inhibition of enzyme activity using a chemical inhibitor of gelatinases. Cells were transplanted orthotopically to athymic mice and demonstrated a variable capacity not only to form tumours at the site of inoculation but, also, to metastasise; normal oral keratinocytes were non-tumorigenic. There was no correlation between the expression of either MMP-2 or MMP-9 and the tumorigenic/metastatic phenotype. The results emphasise the limitations of correlating in vitro and in vivo assays of tumour cell behaviour and suggest that invasion/motility in vitro may be a distinct phenotype from tumorigenicity/metastasis in vivo.