Different epithelia show extensive variation in differentiation. Epidermis and epithelium from the hard palate are both typical examples of orthokeratinized epithelia whereas buccal mucosa is an example of a non- keratinized epithelium. Each of these tissues can be distinguished morphologically and also by the expression of a number of structural proteins. Tissue explants derived from epidermis, hard palate or buccal mucosa were cultured at the air-liquid interface on collagen gels containing human dermal fibroblasts. Reconstructed epithelia that retained many of the morphological and immunohistochemical characteristics of the original tissue were formed. Cultures derived from epidermis and the hard palate both had a well-defined stratum basale, stratum spinosum, stratum granulosum and stratum corneum whereas cultures derived from buccal mucosa had no stratum granulosum or corneum and the cells retained their nuclei. Significantly more living cell layers were observed in both types of epithelia obtained from the mouth than in epidermis. The specific localization of proliferation and differentiation markers (Ki67, loricrin, involucrin, SPRR2, SPRR3 and keratin 10) closely resembled that of the tissue from which the cultures were derived. As identical three-dimensional culture models were used here, it is concluded that the differences observed between these epithelia were due to intrinsic properties of the keratinocytes. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd.