Human acute pancreatitis results from an autodigestive process frequently associated with alcohol abuse, gall stone disease and shock. Peripancreatic fat necrosis was identified as one of the earliest visible lesions, whereas acinar cell necrosis and haemorrhage were regarded as secondary changes. To examine the alterations in acinar cells in more detail, their enzyme content and fine structural features were studied immunocytochemically using antisera against alpha-amylase, lipase, trypsin, chymotrypsin and pancreatic stone protein, and electronmicroscopically in pancreatic tissues from patients with severe acute pancreatitis. Peripheral acinar cells in the immediate vicinity of fat necrosis were found to be heavily degranulated, while acinar cells at some distance of necrosis fully retained their enzyme content. Other frequent changes of the acinar cells included cuboidal transformation, loss of microvilli, increased occurrence of autophagosomes, and formation of enlarged acinar lumina. As there was no apparent cell membrane leakage or rupture of duct lumina, it is concluded that the acinar cells adjacent to fat necrosis release their granules by undirected basolateral extrusion. The findings thus suggest that one of the basic defects in acute pancreatitis is the uncontrolled release of enzymes from peripheral acinar cells into the interstitial space which, in turn, presumably by the action of lipase, leads to autodigestive fat necrosis.