Luminal secretions within colorectal cancers have been assumed to be the counterpart of normal goblet cell mucin. The aim of this study was to establish whether secretory material within colorectal cancers may in fact be traced to different lineages: goblet cells and columnar cells. The distribution of the apomucins MUC1 and MUC2, non-O-acetylated sialic acid and the carbohydrate structures sialosyl Tn, Tn, Lewis(x), sialosyl Lewis(x) and Lewis(y) was studied in normal colorectal mucosa and colorectal cancer specimens using standard histochemical techniques. Unmasking of MUC1 and MUC2 was achieved using periodic acid and saponification-neuraminidase-periodic acid pretreatment respectively. Within normal and malignant epithelium, correlations and/or co-localization could be demonstrated for goblet cells with MUC2, non-O-acetylated sialic acid, sialosyl Tn, Tn (Golgi region) and sialosyl Lewis(x), and for columnar cells with MUC1, Lewis(x), sialosyl Le(x), Tn (cytoplasm) and Lewis(y) (UEA-1). The goblet cell spectrum was associated with mucin-like (type I) luminal secretions within cancers, whereas the columnar cell spectrum characterized non-mucin-like (type II) secretions and intracytoplasmic lumina. These data indicate that colorectal cancer mucin can be broadly separated into two types: secretory mucin linked to cells of goblet lineage and up-regulated membrane-associated mucin of presumed columnar cell origin.