Mucus retention in the lungs is an important feature of several respiratory diseases (Regnis, J.A., M. Robinson, D.L. Bailey, P. Cook, P. Hooper, H.K. Chan, I. Gonda, G. Bautovich, and P.T.P. Bye. 1994. Am. J. Respir. Crit. Care Med. 150:66-71 and Currie, D.C., D. Pavia, J.E. Agnew, M.T. Lopez-Vidriero, P.D. Diamond, P.J. Cole, and S.W. Clarke. 1987. Thorax. 42:126-130). On the mucus-depleted bovine trachea, the ciliary transport rate of sputum from patients with cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis of other causes was slow, but the rate was doubled by increasing the sodium chloride content by 90 mM. Increasing the sputum osmolality by inspissation or by the addition of nonelectrolytes had a similar effect. The viscoelasticity of sputum, but not the bovine ciliary beat frequency, was markedly saline dependent over the pathophysiological range. This suggests that low mucus salinity, not (as is generally assumed) its under-hydration, contributes to its retention in bronchiectasis due to cystic fibrosis and other causes, probably by affecting its rheology. It also indicates how the genetic defect in cystic fibrosis might lead to impaired mucus clearance. Therapies that increase the osmolality of lung mucus might benefit patients with mucus retention.