Shedding of airway epithelial cells is a common finding in asthma. In this study, the attachment of the airway epithelial cells to the basal lamina (BL) was investigated by transmission electron microscopy (TEM) of biopsies from patients with atopic asthma and healthy controls. The following parameters were quantitatively determined: the height of the epithelium and of the columnar cells, the number of basal cells per 100 microm of basal lamina, the contact surfaces of basal cells or columnar cells with the basal lamina, and between basal cells and columnar cells. In order to compare the quantitative method with previous literature data, measurements were also carried out on rat airway epithelium. Compared to the rat, the columnar cell height in the human is increased, basal cells are smaller, and there is a larger contact area between basal cells and basal lamina, as well as between basal and columnar cells. The contact area between columnar cells and basal lamina is hence less in the human airway. The contact area between columnar cells and basal lamina in asthmatics is significantly less than in healthy controls, due to larger intercellular spaces. It is concluded that attachment of columnar cells to the basal lamina occurs mainly indirectly, via desmosomal attachment to basal cells, and that direct attachment of columnar cells to the basal lamina is weakened in asthmatics.