Glycolipids of human germ cell tumor lines were analyzed co define the most common immunohistochemical profiles of embryonal carcinoma (EC), differentiated derivatives of EC, yolk sac carcinoma (YC) and choriocarcinoma (CC). Glycolipid composition was examined by high-performance thin-layer chromatography (HPTLC) combined with Immunostaining with a panel of anti-carbohydrate monoclonal antibodies (MAbs). All EC cell lines were found to contain high levels of globo-series glycolipids, including globotriosylceramide (Gb3), globoside (Gb4), Gb5 (Ga1β1 ± 1Gb4) and GL7 (sialyl Ga1β1 ± 3Gb4). Somatic differentiated derivatives (e.g., EC cells treated with retinoic acid) contained decreased levels of globo-series glycolipids and increased levels of lacto- and ganglio-series glycolipids, including GD3, GT3 and GD2. CC cell lines contained relatively large amounts of Gb3 but did not contain extended globo-series glycolipids GbS and GL7. CC cell lines also contained a macroglycolipid reactive with the antibody to SSEA-1 (Lex). Glycolipids were not detected in two YC cell lines, while other YC cell lines contained globo-series core glycolipids (Gb3 and Gb4) and gangliosides. We conclude that EC, YC and CC have distinct patterns of membrane glycolipid expression that can be identified by HPTLC and immunostaining. Our results indicate that globo-series glycolipids GbS and GL7, which carry stage-specific embryonic antigens 3 and 4 (SSEA-3 and SSEA-4), are a hallmark of human EC cells. Cell lines derived from human germ cell tumors that do not express Gb5 and GL7 deserve to be re-evaluated, since they may represent different stem cells, most likely equivalent to somatic cells and their developmentally committed precursors (e.g., neuroblasts). © 1994 Wiley-Liss, Inc.