Monoclonal antibody (MAb) E48 recognizes a 20- to 22-kDa antigen expressed by human squamous and transitional epithelia and their neoplastic counterparts. Histochemical examination of these tissues revealed distinct surface labeling with MAb E48 . To investigate the subcellular localization of the E48 antigen we have performed electron microscopical analysis. In cells of normal oral mucosa, the E48 antigen was expressed on the plasmalemma, particularly associated with desmosomes, suggesting involvement of the E48 antigen in intercellular adhesion. Furthermore, the level of expression of the E48 antigen appeared to be influenced by the cellular organization. In squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) cell lines grown in vitro as subconfluent monolayer cultures, the E48 antigen expression was low. However, E48 antigen expression increased when SCC cells were grown to confluency. E48 antigen expression was similarly high when SCC cell lines were cultured under conditions promoting three-dimensional growth either as colonies within floating collagen gels or as xenograft in tumor-bearing nude mice. Further evidence for the involvement of the E48 antigen in cell-cell adhesion was found when SCC cells were grown within collagen gels in the presence of MAb E48: no spherical colonies were formed, but cells grew out to colonies composed of single cells. Moreover, in this culture system the percentage of SCC cells growing out to colonies was decreased by the presence of MAb E48. These findings indicate that the E48 antigen is involved in the structural organization of squamous tissue and might have a role in intercellular adhesion.