Cells of mammalian taste buds have been classified into morphological types based on ultrastructural criteria, but investigators have disagreed as to whether these are distinct cell types or the extremes of a continuum. To address this issue, we examined taste buds from rat vallate papillae that had been sectioned transversely, rather than longitudinally, to their longest axis. In these transverse sections, dark (Type I) and light (Type II) cells were easily distinguished by their relative electron density, shape and topological relationships. Cells with electron-lucent cytoplasm (light cells) were circular or oval in outline, while those with electron-dense cytoplasm (dark cells) had an irregular outline with sheetlike cytoplasmic projections that separated adjacent light cells. A hierarchical cluster analysis of 314 cells across five morphological parameters (cell shape and area, and nuclear ellipticity, electron density and invagination) revealed two distinct groups of cells, which largely corresponded to the dark and light cells identified visually. These cells were not continuously distributed within a principal components factor solution. Differences in the means for dark and light cells were highly significant for each morphological parameter, but within either cell type, changes in one parameter correlated little with changes in any other. These analyses all failed to reveal cells with a consistent set of intermediate characteristics, suggesting that dark and light cells of rat vallate taste buds are distinct cell types rather than extremes of a continuum. Sections of taste buds were stained with antibodies to several carbohydrates, then observed by indirect immunofluorescence. Optical sections taken with a confocal laser-scanning microscope showed that the Lewis antigen was present only on spindle-shaped cells with circular or oval outlines and lacking transverse projections; these characteristic shapes matched those of light cells seen by electron microscopy. The H blood group antigen and the 2B8 epitope appeared at most cell-cell interfaces in the bud and are present on dark cells and possibly on some light cells. These findings relate molecular markers to morphological phenotypes and should facilitate future studies of taste cell turnover, development and regeneration.