Invasion in vitro and in vivo and spontaneous metastasis was investigated in cell lines before and after introduction of immortalizing (polyoma large-T and activated myc) genes and of transforming (polyoma middle-T and activated ras) genes in Fischer rat cells. Invasion in vitro was tested by confrontation of rat cells with embryonic chick heart fragments in organ culture. Invasion in vivo and metastasis was evaluated in nude mice and in syngeneic rats after injection of cells i.p. or s.c. in the flank and after implantation of cell aggregates s.c. in the tail. Rat cells were also analyzed for the presence of myc oncogenes, and for the expression of ras oncogenes. Cells from primary or low passage rat embryo (REF) cells were not invasive in vitro and did not produce tumors in vivo. Cell lines (LTRAT1, LTaRATl) derived from REF cultures after transfection with plasmids encoding polyoma large-T antigens, behaved like REF cells. Cell lines (REFpEJgpt4, REFpEJmycN7) established from REF cultures after transfection with either a plasmid encoding an activated human ras protein or with the latter plasmid plus one containing an activated myc gene, were invasive in vitro and in vivo and produced invasive and metastatic tumors in syngeneic rats. Cell lines (FR3T3) established in an apparently spontaneous way were invasive in vitro and produced invasive tumors in vivo without metastasis. Derivatives of FR3T3 (FRLT1, MTT4, MMC1, and PyT21) transfected with plasmids encoding one or more of the polyoma antigens, differed from FR3T3 cells by a shorter latency period of tumor formation (<1 versus 1 to 3 weeks). Like FR3T3 tumors, FRLT1, MTT4, MMC1, and PyT21 tumors were invasive but not metastatic. Other spontaneously established lines (Rat1) were invasive and metastatic. Cells (RatlpEJ6.6) derived from Rat1 cultures after transfection with a plasmid encoding an activated ras protein, showed shorter tumor latency periods (<1 versus 7 weeks). A thymidine kinase deficient Rat1 derivative (Rat2) was not invasive in vitro but produced invasive and metastatic tumors in vivo with long (9 to 21 weeks) latency periods. Rat2pT24B4 cells derived by us from Rat2 cells after transfection with a plasmid containing a mutated human ras gene (pT24), were invasive in vitro and in vivo as were cells derived from Rat2 tumors. We conclude from our experiments that invasiveness and metastatic capability are often acquired by established REF-derived cell lines in an apparently spontaneous way. The rates of these spontaneous conversions were too large to provide definite evidence that either myc or ras or polyoma gene products were involved in the acquisition of invasive and metastatic capability by the cell lines investigated. © 1986, American Association for Cancer Research. All rights reserved.