The ectodomain of certain transmembrane molecules can be released by proteolysis, and the solubilized antigens often exert important biological functions. We demonstrated before that the L1 adhesion molecule is shed from the cell surface. Here we show that L1 release in AR breast carcinoma cells is mediated by a member of the disintegrin metalloproteinase (ADAM) family of proteinases. Up-regulation of L1 shedding by phorbol ester or pervanadate involved distinct mechanisms. Pervanadate induced shedding and rounding-up of cells from the substrate, which was blocked by the Src kinase inhibitor PP2. Tyr phosphorylation of the L1 cytoplasmic tail and the Src kinase Fyn was observed following pervanadate treatment. Up-regulation of L1 release and activation of Fyn occurred also when cells were detached by EDTA suggesting that the regulation of L1 shedding by this pathway was linked to cell morphology and adhesion. The phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate-induced shedding was inhibited by the protein kinase C inhibitor bisindolylmaleimide I and by PD98059, a specific inhibitor of the mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway. Soluble L1 binds to the proteoglycan neurocan and in bound form could support integrin-mediated cell adhesion and migration. We propose that the release of cell-associated adhesion molecules such as L1 may be relevant to promote cell migration.