The levels of several tumor associated proteases, including plasminogen activators (PA), are elevated in many malignant tumors compared to their benign tumor counterparts. Extracellular matrix degradation mediated by PA may facilitate tumor cell invasion and metastasis. To assess whether PA content correlates with the aggressive phenotype in prostate cancer, we studied these activators in the PC-3 human prostate cell line and PC-3CALN, an aggressive in vivo derived variant cell line. Enzymatic assays using H-D-val-leu-lys-pNA (S-2251) as substrate and peroxidase-anti-peroxidase immunohistochemical techniques were used. In an in vitro chemoinvasion assay, the PC-3CALN variant cell line demonstrated significantly greater invasive behavior than the unselected, parental PC-3 line. The activity of PA secreted by PC-3CALN cells was 3.5 times greater than that of PC-3 cells (p < 0.01). PC-3 metastases obtained following intrasplenic injection of PC-3 cells had greater PA activities than the corresponding primary tumors. Immunohistochemical studies of PC-3 tumors demonstrated preferential localization of urokinase-type PA to areas of apparent tumor cell invasion. These data suggest a correlation between PA and the aggressive phenotype in this model of human prostate cancer. PA, in particular u-PA, may play a role in the migration and invasion of prostate cancer cells and provide a marker of the aggressive phenotype.