Matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) play an important role in tumor cell invasion and metastasis. These processes require the dissolution of the basement membrane and invasion of the stromal matrix (ECM), and are mediated by MMPs. Consequently, MMP inhibitors may be attractive as new anticancer agents. To examine the potential contribution of collagenase-1 (MMP-1) in invasion of stromal matrix, we used the highly invasive and metastatic breast cancer cell line MDA-MB-231 as a model system. These cells express procollagenase-1 constitutively and this expression can be repressed by all-trans retinoic acid. Invasion of these cells into a collagen type I matrix was assessed by scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and was quantitated with a computer program and confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM). We found that MDA-MB-231 cells freely invaded the collagen type 1 matrix, suggesting that these cells possess a mechanism for activating the latent collagenase-1. In contrast, down-regulation of collagenase-1 expression by all-trans retinoic acid caused these cells to become less invasive. To confirm a role for collagenase-1 in mediating collagen type I invasion, assays were carried out in the presence of FN-439, an inhibitor of collagenase-1 enzyme activity. We found that in the presence of the proteinase inhibitor, invasion of type I collagen by MDA-MB-231 cells was also reduced. These results indicate that collagenase-1 produced by the breast tumor cells may enhance stromal matrix degradation by enabling the tumor cells to modulate their own invasive behavior, and suggest that decreasing collagenase-1 levels may be effective in breast cancer therapy.