Airway submucosal glands secrete both macromolecules and liquid, yet the mechanisms by which these substances are secreted are not well understood. In this study, a video microscope was used to directly visualize the submucosal glands in isolated porcine distal bronchi and to observe their responses to acetylcholine (ACh), a glandular secretagogue. Submucosal glands were classified as either "antral," "linear," or "convoluted" glands based on the morphology of their terminal collecting ducts. Because antral duct glands were most easily visualized, the response to ACh was studied in detail in this gland type. Within 5-10 s after addition of 10 microM ACh, the cross-sectional area of the gland duct openings to the airway surface increased severalfold but returned to pre-ACh dimensions within 1 min. Between 30 s and 10 min after ACh addition, spherical particles (1-10 microm) entered the antral ducts from distal acini and exited through the duct openings to the airway surface. Some of the particles were retained within the antral duct where they were kept in constant motion by the action of cilia present within the antral duct. The particles, which are likely to contain the macromolecular secretory products of mucous and/or serous cells, maintained their spherical shape within the gland duct, suggesting that the secretion product was membrane bound. To our knowledge, these studies provide the first description of airway submucosal gland secretion as viewed in situ.