Interactions between follicular epithelial cells and extracellular matrix (ECM) are supposed to play an important role in the development and maintenance of thyroid tissue architecture. In the present study we have therefore investigated the synthesis of ECM components by a feline thyroid cell line which is able to form follicle-like structures in vitro, and also in v-ras-transfected and control-transfected sublines. Transfections were performed by lipofection with pZSR (viral Harvey ras gene; neo) and pSV2-neo (control, neo only) plasmids. We have adapted a semisolid culture system composed exclusively of polymerized alginate and therefore devoid of ECM components. Feline cells embedded in alginate gels as single cells and cultured for up to 90 days formed cell clusters within 10 days. Follicle-like structures were formed in the original cell lines and also in the v-ras- and control-transfected cells. Differences in proliferation rates were observed, the v-ras-transfected cells growing up to two to three times faster than the non-transfected cells. Immunostaining was done using rabbit first antibodies directed against mouse collagen IV, human fibronectin, laminin (tumor Engelbreth-Holm-Swarm laminin), perlecan and other ECM components. For comparison, immunostaining was also performed on cryosections of nodular goiters of six hyperthyroid cats. The cell lines and their transfected clones stained strongly positive for collagen IV and fibronectin, and positively but less strongly for laminin and perlecan. The cat goiter tissue stained positively for collagen IV, laminin, perlecan, and fibronectin, and positive staining for S-laminin (containing the beta2-chain) was seen in blood vessel walls in this tissue. In conclusion, cat cell lines grow three-dimensionally in alginate beads over several weeks, they form follicle-like structures and express the same ECM components as the native cat goiter tissue. Transfection with v-ras does increase proliferation rate, but does not fundamentally alter formation of follicle-like structures and ECM expression. Alginate gel culture is a promising new tool for the study of follicular morphogenesis, polarity, the expression pattern of ECM components and of the interaction between thyrocytes and ECM. It avoids interference caused by gels composed of ECM components.