Partial outlet obstruction of the rabbit bladder induces serosal thickening and smooth muscle (SM) hypertrophy. Within thickened serosa, submesothelial (mesenchymal) cells differentiate into SM cells after 30 days of obstruction[S. Buoro et al. Lab. Invest. 69, 589-602, 1993]. Here, we show that submesothelial cells transiently express keratin (K) 18 but not K8 soon after obstruction. We investigated a possible relationship between keratin expression and cell proliferation/differentiation in vivo and in vitro. The results of this study indicate that expression of K18 is spatiotemporally related to the pattern of cell proliferation with respect to the localization of an elastic membrane which divides the thickened serosa into an "extrinsic" and an "intrinsic" region. Moreover, K18 is not present in bladder mesenchyma during early development, indicating that its expression in the adult is not attributable to a dedifferentiation process. However, simultaneous K18, K8, and desmoplakin (DP) expression can be induced in normal and thickened serosa upon treatment with bromo-deoxyuridine. Our results indicate that K18 is a marker of proliferating mesenchymal cells in rabbit serosa, whereas the combined expression of K18, K8, and DP might be related to the hypothesized alterations in the stability of gene expression. A model is proposed in which keratin-containing submesothelial cells can act as a "transit" cell phenotype involved in both regenerating mesothelial cells and formation of SM cells.