Airway mucus was collected from healthy and chronic bronchitic subjects. The chronic bronchitic sputum was separated into gel and sol phase by centrifugation and mucins were isolated using isopycnic density-gradient centrifugation in CsCl. The presence of the MUC5AC and MUC2 mucins was investigated with antisera raised against synthetic peptides with sequences from the respective apoproteins. The gel and sol phase of chronic bronchitic sputum as well as healthy respiratory secretions were shown to contain MUC5AC whereas the MUC2 mucin could not be detected. Rate-zonal centrifugation showed that the MUC5AC mucin was large, polydisperse in size and that reduction yielded subunits. Ion-exchange HPLC revealed the presence of two subunit populations in all secretions, the MUC5AC subunits always being the more acidic. MUC5AC is thus the first large, subunit-based, gel-forming respiratory mucin identified and this glycoprotein is biochemically distinct from at least one other population of large, gel-forming mucins also composed of subunits but lacking a genetic identity.