Expression of the endothelial adhesion molecule VCAM-1 was studied in human malignant melanoma lines by flow cytometry. Clones 2/4 and 2/14 (derived from the same lesion) had appreciable levels of VCAM-1 expression, whereas clone 2/21 and the lines A2058, Mel24, and A375 were negative. Clone 2/14 was selected for further analysis. Exposure to tumor necrosis factor (TNF) markedly augmented VCAM-1 on melanoma cells. Surface VCAM-1 was associated with expression of specific transcripts that were augmented by TNF. Analysis by reverse transcriptase and polymerase chain reaction using appropriate primers revealed that TNF-stimulated melanoma cells expressed both 7 and 6 immunoglobulin domain transcripts with predominance of the longer species. Tumor necrosis factor--stimulated melanoma cells bound more VLA-4-expressing cells (melanoma and monocytes) than resting tumor cells and anti-VCAM-1 monoclonal antibodies significantly inhibited binding, thus suggesting that surface VCAM-1 on melanoma is functional. Analysis of melanoma tissue sections demonstrated that VCAM-1 is not a marker of transformation of melanocytes because it can be detected in benign nevi. Although, unlike ICAM-1, VCAM-1 is not correlated with tumor progression, its expression in a fraction of primary melanomas indicates that it may play a role in regulating host immune response and homotypic interactions in some malignant melanomas.