It is well recognized that the nature of the immune response is different in the intestinal tract than in peripheral lymphoid organs. The immunologic tone of the gut-associated lymphoid tissue is one of suppression rather than active immunity, distinguishing pathogens from normal flora. Failure to control mucosal immune responses may lead to inflammatory diseases such as Crohn's disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC) and celiac disease. It has been suggested that this normally immunosuppressed state may relate to unique antigen-presenting cells and unique T-cell populations. The intestinal epithelial cell (IEC) has been proposed to act as a nonprofessional antigen-presenting cell (APC). Previous studies have suggested that antigens presented by IECs result in the activation a CD8(+) regulatory T-cell subset in a nonclassical MHC I molecule restricted manner. We therefore analyzed the expression of nonclassical MHC I molecules by normal IECs and compared this to those expressed by inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) IECs. Normal surface IEC from the colon and, to a much lesser extent, the small bowel express nonclassical MHC I molecules on their surface. In contrast, mRNA is expressed in all intestinal epithelial cells. Surface IEC express CD1d, MICA/B, and HLA-E protein. In contrast, crypt IECs express less or no nonclassical MHC I molecules but do express mRNA for these molecules. Furthermore, the regulation of expression of distinct nonclassical class I molecules is different depending on the molecule analyzed. Interestingly, IECs derived from patients with UC fail to express any nonclassical MHC I molecules (protein and HLA-E mRNA). IECs from CD patients express HLA-E and MICA/B comparable to that seen in normal controls but fail to express CD1d. Thus, in UC there may be a failure to activate any nonclassical MHC I molecule restricted regulatory T cells that may result in unopposed active inflammatory responses. In CD only the CD1d-regulated T cells would be affected.