Abstract Mammary tumours in female BR6/Icrf mice and the corresponding contralateral normal mammary glands were disaggregated with collagenase and the epithelial structures released (‘organoids’) separated from other cellular components by filtration. The organoids were established in primary culture in a collagen matrix and the outgrowths obtained were studied by light microscopy and time-lapse cinemicroscopy. The pattern of three-dimensional outgrowths produced was found to be specific to the original tissue. Organoids from normal tissue formed a characteristic outgrowth designated Pattern A. Normal tissue from pregnant mice formed an additional characteristic outgrowth (Pattern A) which has not been described previously. Pregnancy-dependent tumours produced a distinctive phenotypic outgrowth designated Pattern D, whereas pregnancy-independent tumours gave a different distinctive Pattern B as well as a unique specific outgrowth designated Pattern C. Outgrowths of Pattern D from a pregnancy-dependent tumour were removed from culture and implanted into a syngeneic female mouse. Tumours arising in the host were found to be pregnancy-independent and showed phenotypic outgrowths in subsequent culture of pregnancy-independent Patterns B and C. The results show that the type of outgrowths in these cultures correlates with the biology of the tissue in vivo and that changes in tumour progression in vivo are accompanied by alterations in phenotypic outgrowths in culture.