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BACKGROUND: Attention has recently been focused on the basal cells of the tracheobronchial epithelium as the mechanism of anchorage of the tall columnar cells, which themselves do not appear to form hemidesmosomes with the basement membrane of the epithelium. Residual basal cells have been described as remaining attached to the basement membrane after epithelial denudation. This led this group to formulate the hypothesis that there may be a potential plane of cleavage between the basal cells and the overlying columnar cell layer within the bronchial epithelium, which becomes disrupted in asthma. METHODS: Bronchoalveolar lavage samples were obtained during bronchoscopy from eight patients with atopic asthma and four normal controls. Ultrathin sections of lavage cell pellets were examined by electron microscopy and the number of columnar and basal cells found in each epithelial cell cluster was counted. Cytocentrifuge preparations of the lavage samples from the same subjects were also examined for free epithelial cells and epithelial cell clusters. RESULTS: Electron microscopic examination of the cell pellets showed that basal cells were present in very small numbers in the epithelial clusters in all subjects (mean 0.03 (SE 0.02)/cluster) and the ratio of columnar cells to basal cells was far greater than was encountered in the intact bronchial epithelium (167 nu 4). The cytocentrifuge preparations showed an increased number of epithelial cell clusters and epithelial cells in the asthmatic patients. Although these clusters were similar in size in the two groups of subjects (6.3 nu 5.1 cells/cluster) the ratio of free epithelial cells to cells within the cluster was higher in the non-asthmatic subjects. CONCLUSIONS: It is proposed that shedding of epithelial cells occurs along a suprabasal plane and that there is a potential plane of cleavage between the suprabasal and the basal cell layers, which might be more vulnerable to the various insults.