Extracellular matrix (ECM), prepared from chick embryo fibroblasts, contains fibronectin as the major structural protein along with collagen and other polypeptides as less abundant protein components. When Rous sarcoma virus-transformed chick embryo fibroblasts are cultured on the ECM in the presence of the tumor promoter tetradecanoyl phorbol acetate, the transformed cells lose their characteristic rounded morphology and align on and within the ECM fibrillar network. This restrictive aspect of ECM is only temporary, however, and with time (24-72 h) the transformed cells progressively degrade the ECM fibers and resume their rounded appearance. The matrix degradation can be monitored by employing biosynthetically radiolabeled ECM. The addition of purified chicken plasminogen to the Rous sarcoma virus-transformed chick embryo fibroblast cultures enhances the rate and extent of ECM degradation, due to the elevated levels in the transformed cultures of plasminogen activator. Plasminogen-dependent and -independent degradation of ECM has been characterized with regard to sensitivity to various natural and synthetic protease inhibitors and to the requirement of cell/ECM contact. Plasminogen-dependent degradation of ECM occurs rapidly when ECM and cells are in contact or separated, whereas plasminogen-independent degradation is greatly reduced when ECM and cells are separated, which suggests that cell surface-associated proteolytic enzymes are involved. A possible role in ECM degradation has been indicated for cysteine proteases, metallo enzymes, and plasminogen activator, the latter as both a zymogen activator and a direct catalytic mediator.