Investigating rare cellular events is facilitated by studying thick sections with confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM). Localization of cells in tissue sections can be done by immunolabelling or by fluorescent labelling of cells prior to intravenous administration. Immunolabelling is technically complicated because of the preservation of antigens during fixation and the problems associated with the penetration of the antibodies. In this study, an alternative and simple approach for the labelling of cells in vitro with the fluorescent probe DiO and its subsequent application in vivo will be outlined. The method was applied to trace DiO-labelled colon carcinoma cells (CC531s) in 100 mum thick liver sections. In vitro and in vivo experiments revealed that DiO-labelling of CC531s cells had no cytotoxic or antiproliferative effect and the cells preserved their susceptibility towards hepatic NK cells or Kupffer cells. In addition, DiO remained stable for at least 72 h in the living cell. DiO-labelled CC531s cells could be traced all over the tissue depth and anti-metastatic events such as phagocytosis of tumour cells by Kupffer cells could be easily observed. In situ staining with propidium iodide (nucleic acids) or rhodamine-phalloidin (filamentous actin) resulted in additional tissue information. The data presented improved the understanding of the possible effects of the vital fluorescent probe DiO on cell function and provided a limit of confidence for CLSM imaging of DiO-labelled cells in tissue sections.