In contrast to the simplified keratin content of bovine, rabbit, and rat esophageal epithelium (composed mainly of a 57 and 46 or 51 kD keratin, depending on the animal species), human esophageal epithelium contained a quantitatively different array of keratin proteins, ranging in molecular weight from 37 to 61 kD. The pattern of keratin proteins from human esophageal epithelium differed qualitatively and quantitatively from that of human epidermis. Human esophageal epithelium lacked the 63, 65, and 67 kD keratins characteristic of human epidermis, consistent with the absence of a granular layer and an anucleate stratum corneum. Moreover, human esophageal epithelium contained a distinctive 61 kD keratin protein which was either not present or present in only small amounts in human epidermis and variable amounts of a 37 kD keratin. Whereas the 56, 59, and 67 kD keratins were the most abundant keratins in human epidermis, the 52, 57, and 61 kD keratins predominated in human esophageal epithelium. During in vitro cultivation, both human epidermal and esophageal keratinocytes produce colonies which are stratified, but the morphologic appearance of these cultured epithelia differs. Only cultured human epidermal keratinocytes contain keratohyalin granules in the outermost layers and a prominent 67 kD keratin on immunoprecipitation. Otherwise the keratin contents appear similar. In conclusion, human esophageal epithelium exhibited intertissue and interspecies differences in the pattern of keratin proteins. During in vitro cultivation, human esophageal keratinocytes retained some aspects of their distinctive program of differentiation.