We have evaluated the use of the Xenogen IVIS 200 imaging system for real-time fluorescence protein-based optical imaging of metastatic progression in live animals. We found that green fluorescent protein-expressing cells (100 x 10(6)) were not detectable in a mouse cadaver phantom experiment. However, a 10-fold lower number of tdTomato-expressing cells were easily detected. Mammary fat pad xenografts of stable MDA-MB-231-tdTomato cells were generated for the imaging of metastatic progression. At 2 weeks postinjection, barely palpable tumor burdens were easily detected at the sites of injection. At 8 weeks, a small contralateral mammary fat pad metastasis was imaged and, by 13 weeks, metastases to lymph nodes were detectable. Metastases with nodular composition were detectable within the rib cage region at 15 weeks. 3-D image reconstructions indicated that the detection of fluorescence extended to approximately 1 cm below the surface. A combination of intense tdTomato fluorescence, imaging at > or = 620 nm (where autofluorescence is minimized), and the sensitivity of the Xenogen imager made this possible. This study demonstrates the utility of the noninvasive optical tracking of cancer cells during metastatic progression with endogenously expressed fluorescence protein reporters using detection wavelengths of > or = 620 nm.