Primary cultures of human tracheal epithelial (HTE) cells cultured in vitro, in defined serum-free media, express prostaglandin endoperoxide G/H synthase (PGHS) activity and produce prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). In contrast to every other cell type studied to date, HTE cells appear to constitutively express PGHS-2, the 'inducible' form of the enzyme, while expressing little or no PGHS-1, the 'housekeeping' isoenzyme in vitro. Prostaglandin synthesis in HTE cells was reduced by a selective PGHS-2 inhibitor, N-[2-cyclohexyloyl-4-nitrophenyl] methane-sulfonamide (NS398), with an IC50 of approximately 1 microM. Immunoblotting and immunoprecipitation of enzymatic activity with isozyme-specific antisera revealed only the PGHS-2 isoform. Full length human cDNA probes detected only PGHS-2 message in Northern blots. Neither PGHS-2 activity nor mRNA levels were dependent on, nor stimulated by peptide growth factors present in the defined serum-free growth medium, or by serum. Prolonged maintenance in the absence of retinoic acid, however, lead to a decline in PGHS activity. Phorbol-myristate acetate (PMA) induced PGHS-2 activity and mRNA and neither PMA-induced, nor constitutive PGHS-2 expression was suppressed by corticosteroids. Actinomycin D-treatment for six hours reduced the PGHS-2 activity and mRNA to only 50% that of untreated cells, suggesting that PGHS-2 mRNA is extremely stable in these cells. HTE cells, at least in vitro, appear unique among prostaglandin-producing cells in that they express PGHS-2, constitutively, independent of regulation by growth factors, serum, or corticosteroids and fail to express PGHS-1 under any culture condition studied.