Interleukin-8 (IL-8) is a potent cytokine for recruitment and activation of neutrophils. To visualize its distribution in the intestinal mucosa and to understand better its possible role in the induction and promotion of inflammatory bowel disease, expression of the IL-8 gene was analyzed in resected bowel segments of 14 patients with active Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. In situ hybridization with IL-8 anti-sense RNA probes revealed strong and specific signals in the histologically affected mucosa. The number of cells expressing IL-8 gene correlated with the histological grade of active inflammation. In accordance with the characteristic histological signs of active disease, IL-8-expressing cells were diffusely distributed over the entire affected mucosa in patients with ulcerative colitis, whereas in patients with Crohn's disease, IL-8-expressing cells showed a focal distribution pattern. Cells expressing IL-8 were mainly located at the base of ulcers, in inflammatory exudates on mucosal surfaces, in crypt abscesses, and at the border of fistulae. Analysis of semi-serial sections pointed to macrophages, neutrophils, and epithelial cells as possible sources of this cytokine in active inflammatory bowel disease. We consistently failed to detect IL-8 messenger RNA in the mucosa of uninvolved bowel segments and in normal-appearing control mucosa of patients with colon cancer. In contrast, tissue specimens from two patients with acute appendicitis displayed IL-8-expressing cells in the mucosa. These results support the notion that IL-8 plays and important but nonspecific role in the pathogenesis of inflammatory bowel disease and that the production of IL-8 messenger RNA is restricted to areas with histological signs of inflammatory activity and mucosal destruction.