Gap-junctional intercellular communication (GJIC) in 20 primary human liver tumors with different degrees of malignancy has been studied at the functional and molecular levels. When GJIC capacity was determined by dye-transfer assay performed directly with freshly removed tumor tissue, significant reduction was found in all samples, regardless of their morphology. In addition, a selective lack of GJIC between tumor and surrounding non-tumorous cells was observed in some cases, probably due to the physical separation between them resulting from encapsulation of tumors. There was, however, no essential change in the level of expression of the major liver gap-junction protein, connexin (ex) 32, in liver tumors as measured by Northern and Western blot analyses. Immunohistochemical study revealed aberrant localization of ex 32 in the majority of malignant liver tumors. Instead of cytoplasmic membrane localization at intercellular contacts, ex 32 was detected mainly either intracytoplasmically or in plasma membrane free from contact with other cells. We did not detect any mutation in the coding sequence of the ex 32 gene from any of the human liver tumors we tested. Thus it is likely that the aberrant localization of ex 32 in tumor cells is due to disruption of the mechanisms for establishment of this protein into gap-junction plaques, rather than to structural abnormality of the ex 32 protein itself. Another member of the connexin family, ex 43, not detectable in non-tumorigenic hepatocytes, was expressed in several tumors, especially in invasive areas, but was detected in only a few tumor cells and was localized intracytoplasmically, suggesting that ex 43 protein is not involved in GJIC in the tumors. © 1994 Wiley-Liss, Inc.