Expression of pulmonary eotaxin protein and mRNA was determined in six subjects with atopic asthma and five nonatopic normal subjects. Levels of eotaxin expression and eosinophil mobilization were compared before and after segmental allergen challenge in subjects with atopic asthma. In the absence of allergen challenge, we found significantly higher levels of eotaxin in the bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid of subjects with asthma than in that of normal subjects (25 +/- 3 versus 15 +/- 2 pg/ml, p < 0.05). BAL eotaxin levels increased after segmental allergen challenge in all six subjects with atopic asthma tested, with a mean increase from 22 +/- 4 to 53 +/- 10 pg/ml (p = 0.013). Segmental allergen challenge was associated with a significant increase in the percentage of BAL macrophages and eosinophils that were immunopositive for eotaxin. Eotaxin mRNA was detectable by northern analysis in BAL cells exclusively from allergen-challenged segments. Allergen- induced increases in eotaxin levels were strongly associated with increases in BAL eosinophil recovery (r(2) = 0.88, p = 0.0036). Segmental allergen challenge also increased eotaxin expression in airway epithelial and endothelial cells obtained by endobronchial biopsy. These findings demonstrate, for the first time, that the airways of subjects with allergic asthma respond to allergen by increasing eotaxin expression. The tissue loci of eotaxin expression, the levels of eotaxin recovered in BAL fluid, and the association of eotaxin levels with eosinophil mobilization suggest either that eotaxin plays a mechanistic role in allergen-induced airway eosinophilia or that it serves as a biomarker for the causal mechanisms.