A cosmid (cos pUK0322) harboring the complete human urokinase-type plasminogen activator (u-PA) gene and Geneticin resistance as a selectable marker was isolated from a human genomic library and characterized. After transfection of cos pUK0322 into mouse L cells and selection, several plasminogen activator (PA)-expressing clones were obtained and one (L(uPA)) was chosen for additional study. The PA expressed was identical to human pro-u-PA in enzymatic, electrophoretic, and antigenic properties. The expression of PA was stable over 50 population doublings. The regulation of the transfected gene was studied by treatment of the cells with various hormones and other effectors. Expression of PA activity was inhibited fivefold by dexamethasone and stimulated two- to threefold by agonists of the adenylate cyclase dependent pathway of signal transduction, such as dibutyryl cyclic AMP and cholera and pertussis toxins. The modulation of PA activity was associated with corresponding changes in mRNA steady-state levels. The phenotypic changes associated with pro-u-PA expression were analyzed in vitro by degradation of 3H-labeled extracellular matrix (ECM), invasion of a matrigel basement membrane analogue, and by light and electron microscopy. L(uPA) cells and reference HT-1080 fibrosarcoma cells, in contrast to control L(neo) cells transfected with the neomycin resistance gene, degraded the ECM and invaded the matrigel basement membrane. Matrix degradation correlated with the modulation of pro-u-PA gene expression as it was inhibited by dexamethasone and promoted by dibutyryl cyclic AMP. Inhibition of PA or plasmin using anti-u-PA IgG or aprotinin prevented ECM degradation and invasion. These results demonstrate that u-PA expression alone is sufficient to confer to a cell an experimental invasive phenotype.