CD44 is implicated in the regulation of tumor growth and metastasis but the mechanism by which expression of different CD44 isoforms determines the rate of primary and secondary tumor growth remains unclear. In the present study we use a human melanoma transfected with wild-type and mutant forms of CD44 to determine which functional property of the CD44 molecule is critical in influencing tumor behavior. We show that expression of a wild-type CD44 isoform that binds hyaluronic acid augments the rapidity of tumor formation by melanoma cells in vivo, whereas expression of a CD44 mutant, which does not mediate cell attachment to hyaluronate, fails to do so. The importance of CD44-hyaluronate interaction in tumor development is underscored by the differential inhibitory effect of soluble wild-type and mutant CD44-Ig fusion proteins on melanoma growth in vivo. Whereas local administration of a mutant, nonhyaluronate binding, CD44-Ig fusion protein has no effect on subcutaneous melanoma growth in mice, infusion of wild-type CD44-Ig is shown to block tumor development. Taken together, these observations suggest that the tumor growth promoting property of CD44 is largely dependent on its ability to mediate cell attachment to hyaluronate.