Transduction of mitogenic signals in cells can be mediated by molecules derived from the synthesis and breakdown of the major membrane phospholipid, phosphotidylcholine. Studies were performed on human mammary epithelial cells in culture to understand the impact of malignant transformation and progression on membrane phospholipid metabolism. In the model system used here, phosphocholine levels and total choline-containing phospholipid metabolite levels increased with progression from normal to immortalized to oncogene-transformed to tumor-derived cells. These changes occurred independently of cell doubling time. A "glycerophosphocholine to phosphocholine switch" was apparent with immortalization. This alteration in phenotype of increased phosphocholine relative to glycerophosphocholine was observed in oncogene-transformed and for all human breast tumor cell lines analyzed. The results demonstrate that progression of human mammary epithelial cells from normal to malignant phenotype is associated with altered membrane choline phospholipid metabolism.