Interleukin (IL)-1beta, IL-6, IL-8, tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha, and the secreted form of the IL-1 receptor antagonist (sIL-1RA) are involved in the inflammatory response to inhaled grain dust. Previously, we found considerable production of these cytokines in the lower respiratory tract of workers exposed by inhalation to aqueous extracts of corn dust extract. Alveolar macrophages (AM) have long been considered the cell type responsible for producing these cytokines, and only recently has it been realized that airway epithelial cells may also be involved in cytokine production. In order to determine whether airway epithelia are involved in the inflammatory response to inhaled corn dust extract and to compare the magnitude of response of bronchial epithelial cells (BE) and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) cells, we used the reverse transcriptase/polymerase chain reaction (RT/PCR) technique in a semiquantitative manner to evaluate the concentration of IL-1beta, IL-6, IL-8, TNF-alpha, and sIL-1RA. Alveolar cells were obtained by BAL, and BE were obtained by endobronchial brush biopsy from 15 grain handlers 6 h after experimental inhalation of saline or an aqueous corn dust extract. After inhalation of saline, BE expressed low but detectable levels of IL-6, IL-8, and IL-1beta (> 1 complementary DNA [cDNA] molecule/cell). After inhalation of corn dust extract, the expression of messenger RNA (mRNA) for IL-1beta and IL-8 in the BE were significantly increased, whereas no change was seen in IL-6, sIL-1RA, and TNF-alpha mRNA expression. Comparing cytokine mRNA levels in BE and BAL cells from the same subjects after inhalation of corn dust extract, BE and BAL cells expressed equivalent amounts of IL-8 mRNA; IL-1beta was 11-fold higher in BAL cells; and TNF-alpha and sIL-1RA were expressed exclusively by BAL cells. Immunostaining for the cytokines in BAL cells showed cytokine protein expression in AMs but not in polymorphonuclear cells (PMNs). On the other hand, sIL-1RA was strongly expressed in both AMs and PMNs. Analysis of cytokine protein levels in endobronchial lavage (EBL) fluid demonstrated that only IL-8 was released in detectable amounts into the airway lumen, whereas all the other cytokines of interest were exclusively found in the BAL fluid. Thus, within 6 h after inhalation exposure to corn dust extract, BE appear to contribute to airway inflammation by producing IL-8. AMs are responsible for most of the IL-1beta and IL-6 production in the alveolar region, whereas AMs and PMNs both produce sIL-1RA. Our findings suggest that the inflammatory response to inhaled grain dust is compartmentalized, involving specific mediators of inflammation released by macrophages, neutrophils, and airway epithelial cells.