The epithelial-specific integrin alpha 6 beta 4 is suprabasally expressed in benign skin tumors (papillomas) and is diffusely expressed in carcinomas associated with an increase in the proliferating compartment. Analysis of RNA samples by reverse transcriptase-PCR and DNA sequencing revealed that chemically or oncogenically induced papillomas (n = 8) expressed a single transcript of the alpha 6 subunit, identified as the alpha 6 A splice variant. In contrast, carcinomas (n = 13) expressed both alpha 6A and an alternatively spliced form, alpha 6B. Primary keratinocytes and a number of keratinocyte cell lines that vary in biological potential from normal skin, to benign papillomas, to well-differentiated slowly growing carcinomas exclusively expressed alpha 6A. However, I7, an oncogene-induced cell line that produces highly invasive carcinomas, expressed both alpha 6A and alpha 6B transcript and protein. The expression of alpha 6B in I7 cells was associated with increased attachment to a laminin matrix compared to cell lines exclusively expressing alpha 6A. Furthermore, introduction of an alpha 6B expression vector into a papilloma cell line expressing alpha 6A increased laminin attachment. When a papilloma cell line was converted to an invasive carcinoma by introduction of the v-fos oncogene, the malignant cells expressed both alpha 6A and alpha 6B, while the parent cell line and cells transduced with v-jun or c-myc, which retained the papilloma phenotype, expressed only alpha 6A. Comparative analysis of alpha 6B expression in cell lines and their derived tumors indicate that alpha 6B transcripts are more abundant in tumors than cell lines, and alpha 6B is expressed to a greater extent in poorly differentiated tumors. These results establish a link between malignant conversion and invasion of squamous tumor cells and the regulation of transcript processing of the alpha 6 beta 4 integrin.