Morphometric procedures were used to determine the number of cells, cell volume, cell diameter, and surface areas of the airways in human and rat lungs. Nuclear sizes of epithelial cells from human bronchi were significantly larger than other lung cell nuclei. The average volume of human ciliated cell nuclei was 310 +/- 30 microns 3 and 167 +/- 12 microns 3 in bronchi and bronchioles, respectively. The smaller nuclei of human bronchioles were comparable to those of alveolar cells. In the pseudostratified epithelium of human bronchi, basal cells had a large surface area in contact with the basement membrane (51.3 +/- 4.6 microns 2 per cell) when compared with ciliated (1.1 +/- 0.1 microns 2), goblet (7.6 +/- 1.2 microns 2), or other secretory cells (12.0 +/- 2.1 microns 2). In the first four airway generations distal to the trachea, basal cells account for 30% of the cells in human airway epithelium and 2% of the cells in rat airway epithelium. Total airway surface area from trachea to bronchioles was 2,471 +/- 320 and 27.2 +/- 1.7 cm2 in human and rat lungs, respectively. These direct measurements of airway surface area are less than half of the estimates based on current lung models. The total number of airway epithelial cells were 10.5 x 10(9) for human and 0.05 x 10(9) for rat lungs. For both species, there were 18 times more alveolar cells than bronchial epithelial cells.