We report the isolation and characterization of a spontaneously immortalized human keratinocyte cell line, NIKS. The cell line is not tumorigenic in athymic nude mice and maintains cell-type-specific requirements for growth in vitro. NIKS cells express steady-state levels of transforming growth factor-alpha, transforming growth factor-beta1, epidermal growth factor receptor, c-myc, and keratin 14 mRNAs comparable with the parental BC-1-Ep keratinocyte strain. BC-1-Ep and NIKS keratinocytes produce similar levels of cornified envelopes and nucleosomal fragmentation in response to loss of substrata attachment. DNA fingerprinting results confirm that the NIKS cells originated from the parental BC-1-Ep keratinocytes. NIKS cells contain 47 chromosomes due to an extra isochromosome of the long arm of chromosome 8, and the near-diploid karyotype appears to be stable with repeated passage. A fully stratified squamous epithelium is formed by the NIKS keratinocytes in organotypic culture. Ultrastructural analysis of both the parental and immortalized keratinocytes reveals abundant desmosomes, hemidesmosomes, and the production of a basal lamina. Our findings with the NIKS cells support the observation that spontaneous immortalization is not linked to alterations in squamous differentiation or the ability to undergo apoptosis. The NIKS human keratinocyte cell line is an important new tool for the study of growth and differentiation in stratified squamous epithelia.