The expression and distribution of the desmosomal plaque proteins, desmoplakins (DPs) I and II, were studied in nontumorigenic (RBE-8) and a series of tumorigenic (AY34, R-4909, SS-24B, RBTCC-8, and 804G) rat bladder epithelial cell lines. These cell lines ranged from slow-growing papillary transitional cells (AY34) to rapidly metastatic carcinoma cells (RBTCC-8). DPs I and II were shown by immunoblotting and Northern analysis to be present in nontumorigenic RBE-8 cells as well as in all of the tumorigenic cell lines, albeit in differing amounts. Immunofluorescence microscopy revealed striking differences in DP distribution, corresponding in general with increases in tumorigenic potential. Whereas DPs of normal RBE-8 cells and less tumorigenic AY34 cells were localized predominantly at cell interfaces, the more tumorigenic lines exhibited a high proportion of DP in the form of cytoplasmic dots, a distribution reminiscent of that seen in epithelial cells maintained in low levels of extracellular calcium. In 804G cells, which represented the most extreme example of this phenomenon, the majority of DPs were organized as cytoplasmic dots. Electron microscopy revealed intermediate filament (IF)-associated spots in the cytoplasm as well as an elaborate array of IF-associated plaques at the cell-substratum interface. The IF-associated spots in the cytoplasm reacted with anti-DP antibody in immunogold labeling experiments while those at the cell-substratum did not react. In more dense cultures of 804G cells, certain cells stratified and expressed increased amounts of DP followed by the induction of new keratins including those of the skin type. Decreasing extracellular calcium resulted in a rearrangement of DP in each cell line; staining at cell-cell interfaces disappeared and was replaced with a pattern of cytoplasmic dots. These results demonstrate a possible relationship between desmosome assembly and/or maintenance and tumorigenic potential.