Two alternative integrins involved in mucosal homing (alpha 4 beta 7) or epithelial retention (alpha E beta 7) of lymphocytes were examined in the human gut. The distribution of the beta 7 subunit [monoclonal antibody (mAb) M301] was bimodal in that it was strongly expressed by alpha E beta 7 + cells but weakly by alpha 4 beta 7 + cells. More than 90% of intraepithelial lymphocytes (IEL), including the minor subsets of CD4+, T-cell receptor (TCR) gamma/delta +, and CD3- cells, expressed alpha E beta 7 as did most lamina propria CD8+ (88%) and a fraction (36%) of CD4+ lymphocytes. Conversely, B-lineage cells (CD19+) and macrophages (CD68+) were negative. In gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT: Peyer's patches and appendix) only a few (< 5%) cells were positive for alpha E beta 7 (confined to CD8+ lymphocytes and CD11c+ putative dendritic cells). A relatively small fraction of IEL (30-50%) expressed alpha 4 beta 7 (mAb Act-1), while most (70%) lamina propria T and B lymphocytes, blasts, plasma cells and macrophages were positive. In GALT, T lymphocytes expressed similar levels of alpha 4 beta 7 as in the lamina propria whereas relatively few B lymphocytes (< 50%) were positive. Isolated lamina propria CD8+, CD4+, CD19+, and CD38+ cells contained mRNA for alpha 4 and the former three subsets as well as appendix CD8+ cells also for beta 7 while only lamina propria CD8+ cells had mRNA for alpha E. Together, the results suggested that alpha E beta 7 and alpha 4 beta 7 are differentially regulated in inductive sites and effector sites of the human gut. Because lymphoid cells at both sites expressed mainly alpha 4 beta 7, this integrin may be a homing receptor on memory and effector cells bound for lamina propria as well as on naive lymphocytes extravasating in GALT. Conversely, because alpha E beta 7 was mainly expressed by CD8+ cells in epithelium and lamina propria, it was probably induced after extravasation, in agreement with the observation that IEL and a fraction of lamina propria T lymphocytes (mainly CD8+ cells) generally expressed higher levels of beta 7 than most CD4+ and B cells. Also a subset of putative dendritic cells located near the follicle-associated epithelium of GALT expressed alpha E beta 7, perhaps reflecting epithelial interaction during primary immune responses.