The protein expression patterns of normal, metaplastic and malignant oesophageal tissues were analysed by two-dimensional polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (2D-PAGE) to identify changes associated with Barrett's metaplasia and transformation to oesophageal adenocarcinoma. Heat-shock protein 27 (Hsp27), a small heat-shock protein which is protective against cytotoxic stresses, was abundant in normal oesophagus. However, Hsp27 expression was markedly lower in Barrett's metaplasia and oesophageal adenocarcinomas. This was confirmed by immunohistochemical analysis. Hsp27 protein was most highly expressed in the upper layers of squamous epithelium and exhibited a pattern of expression that corresponded with the degree of squamous maturation. Northern and Southern analysis demonstrated Hsp27 to be regulated at the level of mRNA transcription or abundance. Normal oesophageal tissues were examined for gender differences in Hsp27 expression. Women expressed fourfold higher levels of Hsp27 mRNA, however, this difference was not appreciable in protein expression. Hsp27 protein was inducible by heat shock in Barrett's adenocarcinoma cell lines and an immortalized oesophageal epithelial cell line (HET-1A), but not by oestradiol. These results demonstrate abundant constitutive expression of the stress-response protein Hsp27 in the normal oesophagus, and suggest that low-level expression in Barrett's metaplasia may be one factor which may influence susceptibility to oesophageal adenocarcinoma development.