Secreted human bronchial mucins, directly collected from macroscopically healthy bronchial mucosa, were prepared in the presence of six proteinase inhibitors, and analysed by electron microscopy. These mucins were similar in length distribution to molecules prepared from sputum [Slayter, Lamblin, Le Treut, Galabert, Houdret, Degand & Roussel (1984) Eur. J. Biochem. 142, 209-218], although they were a little longer, their lengths ranging up to about 1,650 nm. This length corresponds to an extended mucin peptide of about 450 kDa. In order to compare these peptide lengths with the molecular size of biosynthetic precursors, an antiserum raised against trifluoromethanesulphonic acid-treated highly glycosylated regions of human bronchial mucins was used to isolate mucin precursors synthesized in explants of human bronchial mucosa during pulse-labelling with [3H]threonine or [3H]glucosamine. A main precursor labelled with [3H]threonine and with an apparent molecular mass of about 400 kDa was detected by fluorography following SDS/polyacrylamide-gel electrophoresis. This band was observed as early as 20 min; it was more intense after a 40 min chase and had disappeared after a chase period of 280 min in unlabelled medium, presumably owing to glycosylation. Much fainter bands at about 200 kDa and between 200 and 400 kDa, also labelled with [3H]threonine, were observed mainly after a 40 min chase and had disappeared after a 280 min chase. None of these bands was labelled with [3H]glucosamine, nor did they disappear after multiple treatments with immobilized lectins. After a 280 min chase, [3H]threonine-labelled material appeared in the stacking gel, which also contained [3H]glucosamine label. The results indicate that the 200-400 kDa species are mucin precursors, whose size is comparable with that obtained by electron microscopy for respiratory mucins collected directly from the macroscopically healthy bronchial mucosa.