Retinoid-deficient cultures of airway epithelial cells undergo squamous differentiation. Treatment of such cultures with retinoic acid (RA) leads to restoration of the mucous phenotype. The purpose of our study was to characterize the cellular and molecular changes following RA treatment of retinoid-deficient human tracheobronchial epithelial cell cultures. Of particular interest was to determine when during the conversion of the squamous to the mucous phenotype the mucin genes MUC2, MUC5AC, and MUC5B were expressed. We used cornifin alpha and secreted mucin as markers to monitor the squamous and mucous phenotypes, respectively. Our studies showed that the RA responsiveness of the cultures progressively decreased with protracted retinoid deficiency, requiring higher RA concentrations to restore the mucous phenotype. Within 12 h after the start of RA treatment, cornifin alpha expression decreased, signaling the beginning of a change in cellular phenotype. At 24 h after addition of RA to the cultures, a significant number of mucous cells appeared, and at 72 h mucin was secreted in measurable amounts. Induction of mucin gene expression occurred sequentially: MUC2, MUC5AC, and MUC5B mRNAs were upregulated at 24, 48, and 72 h, respectively. When cultures maintained in 10(-8) M RA were treated with 10(-6) M RA, MUC2 but not MUC5AC and MUC5B mRNA levels were upregulated within 6 h. Our study indicates that MUC2 mRNA is an early marker of mucous differentiation, whereas MUC5AC and MUC5B mRNAs are expressed during more advanced stages of mucous differentiation. Our studies further suggest that each of the mucin genes is regulated by distinct mechanisms.