Four monoclonal antibodies against carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) have been selected from 32 hybrids that produce antibodies against this antigen, by the criteria of high affinity for CEA and low cross-reactivity with granulocyte glycoprotein(s). The specificity of tumor localization in vivo of the four MAb, and their F(ab')2 and Fab fragments was compared in nude mice bearing grafts of a serially transplanted, CEA-producing, human colon carcinoma. The distribution of radiolabeled MAb and their fragments after intravenous injection was analyzed by direct measurement of radioactivity in tumor and normal organs, as well as by whole-body scanning and by autoradiography of tumor sections. Paired labeling experiments, in which 131I-labeled antibody or fragments and 125I-labeled control IgG are injected simultaneously, were undertaken to determine the relative tumor uptakes of each labeled protein. The tumor antibody uptake divided by that of control IgG defines the specificity index of localization. Tumor antibody uptakes (as compared with the whole mouse), ranging between 7 and 15, and specificity indices ranging between 3.4 and 6.8, were obtained with the four intact MAb at day 4-5 after injection. With F(ab')2 fragments of the four MAb, at day 3, the tumor antibody uptakes ranged between 12 and 24 and the specificity indices between 5.3 and 8.2. With the Fab fragments prepared from the two most promising MAb, the antibody uptakes reached values of 34 and 82 at day 2-3 and the specificity indices were as high as 12 and 19. The scanning results paralleled those obtained by direct measurement of radioactivity. With intact MAb, tumor grafts of 0.5-1 g gave very contrasted positive scans 3 d after injection. Using MAb fragments, tumors of smaller size were detectable earlier. The best results were obtained with Fab fragments of MAb 35, which gave clear detections of tumors weighing only 0.1 g as early as 48 h after injection. Autoradiographs of tumor sections from mice injected with 125I-labeled MAb demonstrated that the radioactivity was localized in the tumor tissues and not in the stromal connective tissue of mouse origin. The highest radioactivity concentration was localized in areas known to contain CEA such as the pseudolumen of glands and the apical side of carcinoma cells. The penetration of radioactivity in the central part of tumor nodules and the pseudolumen appeared to be increased with the use of MAb fragments.