Although micrometastatic cancer cells in lymph nodes can be detected by monoclonal antibodies against epithelial or tumor-associated antigens, it remains unclear whether these cells are precursors of overt metastases or shedded tumor cells with a limited life span. Here we used esophageal cancer as a model to evaluate the prognostic significance and biological characteristics of such micrometastases. In lymph nodes classified as tumor free by conventional histopathological staging, tumor cells were identified with monoclonal antibody Ber-EP4 in 89 of 126 patients (71%) with completely resected (R0) esophageal carcinomas. Multivariate survival analysis underlined the strong and independent prognostic significance of Ber-EP4-positive cells in "node-negative" (pN0) patients. To assess the biology of Ber-EP4-positive cells, we established tumor cell lines from an immunohistochemically positive lymph node and the autologous primary tumor. p53 mutational analysis and multiplex-fluorescence in situ hybridization revealed common aberrations shared between both cell lines, whereas an insertion of chromosome 13 material in the short arm of chromosome 1 was only observed in micrometastatic cells. The tumorigenicity and metastatic potential of both cell lines were demonstrated in severe combined immunodeficient mice. In conclusion, our data provide first direct evidence for the malignant potential of micrometastatic cancer cells.