The role of tenascin in mediating tumor cell migration was studied using two cell migration models. In migration/invasion Transwell assays U251.3 glioma cells rapidly migrated through the 8 mu m pore size membranes onto tenascin- and fibronectin-coated surfaces. In this assay the number of cells migrating onto tenascin was 52.2 +/- 9.6% greater than on fibronectin within 4 hours. To assess cell migration rates and cell morphology, U251.3 migration was examined in a two-dimension spheroid outgrowth assay. The radial distance migrated by U251.3 cells from tumor spheroids was found to be 53.8 +/- 4.9% greater on tenascin than on fibronectin. Cells migrating on tenascin display a very motile appearance, while cells migrating on fibronectin spread and maintain close intercellular contacts. Cell migration in the presence of integrin blocking antibodies demonstrated that migration on tenascin and fibronectin is mediated by distinct integrins, alpha2beta1 and alphavbeta5/alphavbeta3, respectively. Since tenascin is coexpressed in malignant tumor matrices with fibronectin, we assessed the effects of tenascin on U251.3 cell migration mediated by fibronectin. Tenascin was found to provide a positive effect on fibronectin-mediated migration by altering cell morphology and enhancing cell motility. These effects of tenascin on fibronectin-mediated cell migration were inhibited by blocking beta1 and alpha2beta1 integrins. The results suggest that tenascin may play a significant role in promoting tumor cell migration and invasiveness by modulating cell responses to normal matrix components.