Two roles have been suggested for basal cells on the basis of studies performed with laboratory animals: (1) anchoring of the tracheobronchial epithelium; and (2) being the epithelial stem cell. Parabasal cells located just above the basal cells have also been shown to contribute to cell renewal. However, a systematic study of the composition and proliferation of basal and parabasal cells in normal human lungs is lacking. The aims of this study were to determine in normal human conducting-airway epithelium: (1) the number of basal and parabasal cells; and (2) the contribution of basal and parabasal cells to the proliferation fraction. Samples of histologically normal tissue, free of pulmonary disease, were taken from seven lungs obtained by autopsy. Immunohistochemical staining was performed with the primary antibody MIB-1 as a proliferation marker and the antikeratin antibody 34betaE12 as a marker for basal and parabasal cells. In the largest conducting airways (diameter >= 4 mm), the percentages of basal and parabasal cells were 31% and 7%, respectively; the contribution to the proliferation compartment was 51% for basal and 33% for parabasal cells. In the smallest airways (diameter < 0.5 mm), 6% of epithelial cells were basal cells, with a 30% contribution to the proliferation compartment, whereas parabasal cells were absent. The high fraction of basal and parabasal cells contributing to the proliferation compartment of normal human conducting-airway epithelium supports the theory that cells at or near the basement membrane are likely to be progenitor cells.