Migrating keratinocytes actively involved in reepithelialization in dermal wounds acquire a collagenolytic phenotype upon contact with the dermal matrix. To determine whether this phenotype is associated with repair in other forms of wounds, we assessed collagenase expression in 50 specimens representing a variety of blistering skin diseases, including subtypes of epidermolysis bullosa, porphyria cutanea tarda, bullous pemphigoid, pemphigus, transient acantholytic dermatosis, and suction blisters. Distinct from that seen in chronic ulcers or in normal healing by second intention, reepithelialization in these blistering conditions was not necessarily associated with a complete loss of basement membrane, as determined by immunostaining for type IV collagen. Collagenase mRNA was detected in the basal keratinocytes of several specimens of epidermolysis bullosa simplex (six of 10) and of pemphigus (three of seven), as well as in one quarter of transient acantholytic dermatosis samples in the presence of an intact basement membrane. In contrast, three of nine porphyria cutanea tarda, one third of epidermolysis bullosa acquisita, and one of 10 bullous pemphigoid samples had collagenase-positive basal keratinocytes with the basement membrane disrupted. The collagenase-positive lesions generally represented older blisters with evidence of epithelial regeneration. Collagenase was also expressed in suction blisters at 2 and 5 d after induction of the blister, but was shut off when the epidermis had healed. Other metalloproteinases were expressed occasionally, if at all. Our results suggest that keratinocyte migration is associated with collagenase expression and that contact of keratinocytes with the dermal matrix is not necessarily needed for collagenase induction.