A distinctive type of multilayered epithelium (ME) has been described at the neo-squamocolumnar junction and within columnar mucosa in patients with Barrett's esophagus (BE). This epithelium has morphologic and ultrastructural features of both squamous and columnar epithelium. Multilayered epithelium may represent an early or intermediate stage of columnar metaplasia; therefore, we performed this study to determine the morphologic and biologic characteristics of this epithelium and to gain insight into its derivation. Esophageal mucosal biopsies containing ME from 17 patients with BE were evaluated morphologically, stained with a variety of mucin histochemical stains; and also immunostained with antibodies against cytokeratins (CK) 13 (squamous epithelium marker); 14 (basal squamous epithelium marker) 7, 8/18, 19, and 20 (columnar epithelium markers), MIB-1 (proliferation marker); villin (intestinal brush border protein); and TGFalpha, EGFR, pS2, and hSP (enteric proliferation/differentiation regulatory peptides). The results were compared with normal esophageal squamous epithelium, normal gastric cardia epithelium, specialized-type intestinal epithelium (BE), and esophageal mucosal and submucosal gland duct epithelium. Multilayered epithelium expressed a pattern of mucin production (neutral mucin, sialomucin, and sulfomucin in 88%, 100%, and 71% of cases, respectively) and cytokeratin expression (CK 13 and 19 in the basal "squamoid" cells, CK 7, 8/18, 19, and 20 in the superficial "columnar" cells) similar to that of columnar epithelium in BE, and showed a high capacity for cellular proliferation (Ki-67-positive in 88% of cases) and differentiation (TGFalpha, EGFR, pS2 and villin-positive in 100%, 100%, 93%, and 66% of cases, respectively). The mucosal gland duct epithelium showed a similar phenotypic pattern and, in one case, was seen to give rise to ME at the surface of the mucosa. These data provide evidence in support of the hypothesis that ME represents an early or intermediate stage in the development of esophageal columnar metaplasia (BE). The mucosal gland duct epithelium may contain progenitor cells that can give rise to ME.