Early studies of changes in mucin expression in disorders of the gastrointestinal tract focused on alterations in the carbohydrate chain. This review briefly considers the various mechanisms by which such alterations may come about: (a) normal variation, (b) sialic acid alterations, (c) defective assembly of carbohydrate side-chains, (d) changed expression of core proteins and (e) epithelial metaplasia. The availability of monoclonal antibodies to mucin core proteins adds a new dimension to mucin histochemistry. It is now possible to offer explanations for traditional mucin histochemical findings on the basis of lineage-specific patterns of mucin core protein expression. Changes in core protein expression are described in inflammatory, metaplastic and neoplastic disorders of the gastrointestinal tract. The possibility that mucin change could be important in the aetiology of some diseases such as ulcerative colitis and H. pylori gastritis is considered. It is more probable, however, that changes in mucin expression are secondary to reprogramming of cellular differentiation and altered cell turnover. As such they may serve as markers to explain pathogenesis and provide novel diagnostic and prognostic information.