Exhaled nitric oxide (NO) is altered in numerous diseases including asthma, and is thought broadly to be a noninvasive marker of inflammation. However, the precise source of exhaled NO has yet to be identified, and the interpretation is further hampered by significant inter-subject variation. Using fully differentiated normal human bronchial epithelial (NHBE) cells, we sought to determine (1) the rate of NO release (flux, pl.s(-1.)cm(-2)) into the gas; (2) the effect of IL-13, a prominent mediator of allergic inflammation, on NO release; and (3) inter-subject/donor variability in NO release. NHBE cells from three different donors were cultured at an air-liquid interface and stimulated with different concentrations of IL-13 (0, 1, and 10 ng/ml) for 48 h. Gas phase NO concentrations in the headspace over the cells were measured using a chemiluminescence analyzer. The basal NO flux from the three donors (0.05 +/- 0.03) is similar in magnitude to that estimated from exhaled NO concentrations, and was significantly increased by IL-13 in a donor-specific fashion. The increase in NO release was strongly correlated with inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) gene and protein expression. There was a trend toward enhanced production of nitrate relative to nitrite as an end product of NO metabolism in IL-13-stimulated cells. NO release from airway epithelial cells can be directly measured. The rate of release in response to IL-13 is strongly dependent on the individual donor, but is primarily due to the expression of iNOS.