Internalization of Pseudomonas aeruginosa by epithelial respiratory cell lines has been suggested to be dependent on the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) protein. Because we have observed intracellular (IC) P. aeruginosa only in cells that do not express apical CFTR, we addressed the question of whether bacterial internalization by epithelial cells depends on the degree of cell differentiation and polarity. Internalization of piliated P. aeruginosa PAO-1 and PAK by human epithelial respiratory cells in primary culture and by the 16 human bronchial epithelial 14o- cell line cultured either on thick collagen gels or on thin collagen films was evaluated by the gentamicin exclusion assay. Cells cultured on thick gels were differentiated, polarized, and tight. They exhibited CFTR at their apical membranes, expressed beta1 integrins at their basal membranes, excluded lanthanum nitrate, and uniformly expressed ZO-1 protein. In contrast, in cells cultured on thin films, CFTR was present mainly in the cytoplasm, whereas beta1 integrins were detected at apical membranes. Most cells cultured on thin films did not exclude lanthanum nitrate and rarely expressed ZO-1 protein. Cells grown on thick and thin collagen substrates differed markedly in bacterial internalization: no IC bacteria could be detected in cells cultured on gels, whereas high IC bacterial concentrations were isolated from cells cultured on thin films. Treatment of cells cultured on thin films with ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, to disrupt intercellular junctions further, significantly enhanced P. aeruginosa internalization. Our results suggest that P. aeruginosa internalization by epithelial respiratory cells does not depend on CFTR protein expression at the epithelial cell surface but rather on cell polarity and junctional complex integrity.