To determine the characteristics of metaplastic changes of the nasal respiratory epithelium, the distribution of individual cytokeratins (CKs) was studied immunohistochemically and by two-dimensional gel electrophoresis. The authors define four types of changes of the normal pseudostratified columnar epithelium: (1) transitional pseudostratified epithelium (first unusual CK.: no. 13); (2) stratified columnar epithelium (increased expression of CKs 4 and 13; CKs 7, 8, 18 and 19 reduced); (3) stratified squamous epithelium, nonkeratinized (appearance of CK 16); and (4) stratified squamous epithelium, keratinized (expression of CKs 1 and 10, variable CK5 and 14 patterns in basal cells). These phenotypes were found simultaneously within single specimens, resulting in apparent overall variability in the immunohistochemical staining patterns. Spatially, changes in CK expression towards "normal" parts were not abrupt but rather gradual. Biochemical data confirmed the immunohistochemical findings and added CK 6 to the pattern of altered nasal mucosa. The findings of this study suggest a stem cell metaplasia in the nasal epithelium which is based on its inherent bimodal developmental programme. A gradual loss of normal respiratory epithelial differentiation, as seen by the loss of CKs 7, 8, and 18, was paralleled by the appearance of squamous epithelial type CKs, e.g. the expression of CKs 1, 10 and 13. Basal cell types CKs 5, 14, 17 and 19 were maintained during this process. Implications of these results for general concepts of CK expression in the metaplastic process are discussed.