Bowman's membrane is an acellular matrix of the cornea which lies between the epithelial basal lamina and the corneal stroma. By immunoelectron microscopy, we have determined that types I and V collagen are components of the collagen fibrils in Bowman's membrane of the chick cornea. Although these same components are found in the fibrils of the stroma, the fibrils of Bowman's membrane are smaller in diameter and less uniform than those of the stroma. At early stages of development, the corneal epithelium synthesizes the types I and II collagen of the primary stroma. We therefore asked whether it might also be capable of synthesizing the type V collagen found in Bowman's membrane at later stages of development. Our results, using competitive polymerase chain reaction to quantitate mRNA from avian corneal cells, indicate that the amount of alpha 1(V) collagen mRNA present in epithelia, relative to alpha 2(I) collagen mRNA, is greater than that in stromal fibroblasts. We postulate that this enables the epithelium to synthesize a higher ratio of type V to type I collagen than the stroma and that this proportionally higher amount of type V might account for the ultrastructural appearance of the fibrils in Bowman's membrane.