The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR, c-erbB1) plays a pivotal role in maintenance and repair of epithelial tissues; however, little is known about coexpression of c-erbB receptors and their ligands in human bronchial epithelium. We therefore analyzed the expression of these molecules in cultured bronchial epithelial cells and normal bronchial mucosa, using reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT- PCR), flow cytometry, and immunohistochemistry. Messenger RNA (mRNA) encoding EGFR, c-erbB2, and c-erbB3, but not c-erbB4, was detected in primary cultures of human bronchial epithelial cells, as well as in the human bronchial epithelial-derived cell lines H292 and 16HBE 14o-. Transcripts encoding epidermal growth factor (EGF), heparin binding epidermal growth factor (HB-EGF), transforming growth factor-alpha (TGF-alpha), and amphiregulin (AR) were also detected, and expression of the three receptors and four ligands was confirmed by immunocytochemical staining of the cultured cells. Immunohistochemical analysis of resin- or paraffin-embedded sections from surgical specimens of bronchial mucosa revealed strong membrane staining for EGFR within the bronchial epithelium; this was particularly evident between basal cells and the basal aspect of columnar cells. The patterns of staining for c-erbB2 and c-erbB3 in the bronchial epithelium were similar to those for EGFR. Immunostaining for EGF, TGF-alpha, AR, HB- EGF, and betacellulin (BTC) was intense in the submucosal glands; with the exception of BTC, EGFR ligand immunoreactivity was also observed in the bronchial epithelium, where it paralleled EGFR staining. Colocalization of c-erbB receptors and ligands demonstrates the potential for productive c-erbB receptor interactions in bronchial epithelium. Further study of these interactions may help to define their role in maintenance and repair of the bronchial epithelium.