Increasing evidence indicates that epidermal growth factor and transforming growth factor-alpha are involved in the maintenance of oesophageal mucosal integrity. However, their cellular origin and the exact localization of their receptor in the oesophagus are still unclear. Therefore, we examined the expression of the two growth factors and their shared receptor in the normal human oesophagus at both mRNA and protein level, by immunohistochemistry, in situ hybridization and reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction. In addition to being expressed in the proliferative compartment of the oesophageal epithelium, the receptor was found in a variety of cells, including smooth muscle cells, submucosal gland cells and the epithelium lining their ducts. Immunohistochemically, the pattern of distribution of epidermal growth factor paralleled that of its receptor. In situ hybridization demonstrated epidermal growth factor mRNA expression in the oesophageal epithelium and submucosal glands. Additionally, amplified transcripts of predicted size were detected by reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction, thus confirming that authentic transcripts of the growth factor exist in the normal human oesophagus. Transforming growth factor-alpha mRNA and protein expression, while similar to that of epidermal growth factor, predominated in the more differentiated cell layers of the stratified squamous epithelium. These results demonstrate that the normal oesophagus can synthesize both growth factors. Moreover, the peculiar distribution of these peptides and the concomitant expression of their receptor in multiple cell types suggest that the two growth factors may exert diverse physiological functions in the oesophagus and participate in defence and reparative events following mucosal injury.