One function of airway epielium is the secretion of mucins, which comprise an important component of the mucous lining layer. We demonstrate that rabbit tracheal epithelial cells grown in primary culture incorporate [3H]glucosamine into material released into the medium which is characterized as mucin by the following criteria: (a) high M(r), (b) monosaccharide composition, (c) ion-exchange behaviour different from that of glycosaminoglycans and (d) oligosaccharides attached via N-acetylgalactosamine. The production of mucin by the cells requires growth on a substratum of collagen gel and is enhanced by retinoids in the extracellular medium. In the presence of retinoids, 8-bromo cyclic AMP and factors present in medium from 3T3 fibroblasts each further stimulate mucin production. These results indicate that an isolated epithelial-cell culture system, in the absence of nervous, mesenchymal or other tissue types, can be used to answer questions about the regulation of mucin production at the cellular level.