Elastic fibers required to maintain bronchial patency during ventilation may be damaged in asthma as a result of repair following inflammation or stretching during exacerbations. Fifteen normal subjects and 40 asthmatics of variable severity were studied. Bronchial biopsies were obtained from a subsegmental bronchus using a flexible bronchoscope. The elastic fibers were examined using orceine-eosine sustaining and/or immunohistochemistry with two monoclonal antibodies against elastin or transmission electron microscopy (six asthmatics and four control subjects). Orceine-eosine staining revealed that most normal subjects had normal fibers throughout the submucosa whereas of the 21 asthmatics analyzed only three had a normal superficial elastin network. In five patients, elastin had virtually disappeared. In the remaining patients, fibers appeared fragmented. The deeper layer of elastic fibers was abnormal in 17 asthmatics, fibers being patchy, tangled, and thickened. The fragmentation of the superficial network of elastic fibers shown in asthmatics was confirmed by immunohistochemistry. Electron microscopy studies suggested that the elastinolytic process and fragmentation of elastic fibers occurred in asthmatics. Elastinolysis occurs in the airways of asthmatics possibly as a result of repair elicited by chronic inflammation. Mechanical stretch induced by breathing and edema may lead to the fragmentation of fibers in asthmatic airways.