Interaction between the chemokine CXCL12 (SDF1) and the G-protein coupled receptor CXCR4 is responsible for the maintenance of adult stem cell niches and is known to play an important role in utero in the migration of primordial germ cells. We demonstrate expression of CXCL12 by Sertoli cells and confirm CXCR4 expression by the germ cell population of the adult human testes. CXCR4 is also known to mediate organ-specific patterns of metastases in a range of common cancers. We identify consistent expression of CXCR4 mRNA and protein in testicular germ cell tumours (TGCT) that accounts for their patterns of relapse in sites of known CXCL12 expression. Extragonadal primary germ cell tumours express CXCR4 and their sites of occurrence are coincident with areas of known CXCL12 expression in utero. We show that CXCL12 stimulates the invasive migration of a TGCT cell line in vitro in a CXCR4-dependent fashion and activates ERK. Furthermore, we demonstrate that expression of CXCL12 in stage I non-seminomas is significantly associated with organ-confined disease post-orchidectomy and reduced risk of relapse (P = 0.003). This may be through the loss of CXCL12 gradients that might otherwise attract cells away from the primary tumour. We propose CXCL12 expression as a potential predictor of subsequent relapse that could lead to avoiding unnecessary treatment and associated late toxicities. Our observations support a role for CXCL12/CXCR4 in the adult germ cell population and demonstrate pathological function in germ cell tumour development and metastasis that may have clinical utility. Copyright (C) 2008 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.