An intimately regulated cell surface activation of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) is believed to be of critical importance for the control of trophoblast invasion. A histological investigation of the expression and localization of three different MMPs, the membrane-type matrix metalloproteinases 1 and 2 (MT1-MMP, MT2-MMP) and matrix metalloproteinase 2 (MMP-2/gelatinase A) was performed by in situ hybridization on consecutive sections from human placentae of first trimester pregnancies. Cytokeratin immunostaining identified trophoblast cells. Both normal and tubal implantation sites were studied. We observed a high degree of coexpression of MT2-MMP, MT1-MMP and MMP-2 mRNAs in single extravillous cytotrophoblasts that had invaded the endometrium and tubal wall. Furthermore, mRNAs for all three genes were also seen in cytotrophoblasts of cell islands. In contrast to this coexpression pattern, MT2-MMP expression was absent from cell columns and decidual cells, in which signals for MT1-MMP and MMP-2 mRNAs were seen. The present data on the cellular expression of MT2-MMP mRNA in placenta extend our knowledge of the proteolytic events that take place during early pregnancy. The data suggest that MT2-MMP, capable of activating MMP-2 in vitro, is involved in the invasion of extravillous cytotrophoblast, possibly related to the physiological activation of MMP-2.