The healing of alkali-injured corneas is characterized by the persistence of polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN) in tissues and recurrent corneal epithelial defects. It has been suggested that the proteolytic enzymes secreted by PMN may account in part for the recurrent epithelial defects in the alkali-burned corneas. Cytoplasmic keratins, which form intracellular intermediate filaments, participate in the formation of hemidesmosomes and play a key role in the focal adhesion of epithelial cells to the basement membranes. The K3/K12 keratin pair is a major constituent of differentiated and stratified corneal epithelium. We have recently cloned the cDNA encoding the rabbit K12 keratin. In the present study we examined the expression of K12 keratin during the healing of alkali-burned rabbit corneas by slot-blot and in situ hybridization. Our results indicate that in normal cornea K12 keratin is equally expressed in all cell layers of stratified corneal epithelium and suprabasal layers of limbal epithelium, but not in bulbar conjunctival and other epithelia, i.e., lens, iris, and retinal pigment epithelium. The basal cells of the detached regenerating epithelium of the injured cornea express a very low level of K12 keratin. These observations are consistent with the notion that defective expression of K3/K12 keratins may play a role in the abnormal attachment of the regenerating epithelium to the basement membrane.