The impact of chronic inflammation on the expression of human alpha-defensins 5 and 6 (HD-5, HD-6), beta-defensins 1 and 2 (hBD-1, hBD-2) and lysozyme in epithelial cells of small and large intestine was investigated. Intestinal specimens from 16 patients with ulcerative colitis (UC), 14 patients with Crohn's disease (CD) and 40 controls with no history of inflammatory bowel disease were studied. mRNA expression levels of the five defence molecules were determined in freshly isolated epithelial cells by real-time quantitative RT-PCR. Specific copy standards were used allowing comparison between the expression levels of the different defensins. HD-5 and lysozyme protein expression was also studied by immunohistochemistry. Colonic epithelial cells from patients with UC displayed a significant increase of hBD-2, HD-5, HD-6 and lysozyme mRNA as compared to epithelial cells in controls. Lysozyme mRNA was expressed at very high average copy numbers followed by HD-5, HD-6, hBD-1 and hBD-2 mRNA. HD-5 and lysozyme protein was demonstrated in metaplastic Paneth-like cells in UC colon. There was no correlation between hBD-2 mRNA levels and HD-5 or HD-6 mRNA levels in colon epithelial cells of UC patients. Colonic epithelial cells of Crohn's colitis patients showed increased mRNA levels of HD-5 and lysozyme mRNA whereas ileal epithelial cells of Crohn's patients with ileo-caecal inflammation did not. Chronic inflammation in colon results in induction of hBD-2 and alpha-defensins and increased lysozyme expression. hBD-1 expression levels in colon remain unchanged in colitis. The high antimicrobial activity of epithelial cells in chronic colitis may be a consequence of changes in the epithelial lining, permitting adherence of both pathogenic bacteria and commensals directly to the epithelial cell surface.