Expression of alternatively spliced products of the CD45 leukocyte common antigen gene identifies two populations of blood T cells: "naive" T cells (containing CD45R-IV mRNA transcripts, CD45 220, 205 kD surface proteins detected with antibody 2H4) that respond poorly to recall antigens, and "memory" T cells (containing CD45R-0 mRNA transcripts, expressing CD45 180 kD protein, detected with antibody UCHL1) that respond promptly to recall antigens. While blood contains approximately equal numbers of "naive" and "memory" T cells, it is known that UCHL1+ "memory" T cells accumulate at sites of chronic inflammation. To test the concept that "memory" T cells are a feature of the T lymphocyte populations present in tissues chronically exposed to antigens in normals as well as in individuals with chronic inflammation, we evaluated T lymphocytes obtained from blood and the epithelial surface of the lower respiratory tract of normal individuals for the expression of specific CD45 surface protein isoforms and corresponding mRNA transcripts. Flow cytometric analysis of CD45 220, 205, and 180 kD surface proteins demonstrated that lung T cells of normals are dominated by UCHL1+ "memory" cells (86 +/- 2%) while autologous blood T cells have equal proportions of "memory" UCHL1+ and "naive" 2H4+ T cells. In addition, polymerase chain reaction analysis of CD45 mRNA transcripts revealed that the lung cells expressed CD45R-0 mRNA transcripts but 17-fold fewer CD45R-IV mRNA transcripts than autologous blood T cells (p less than 0.01). The pattern of lung T cells being dominated by CD45R-0 mRNA+, UCHL1+ "memory" T cells was also observed in individuals with chronic beryllium disease, an example of a chronic inflammatory disease in which antigen-specific T cells accumulate on the pulmonary epithelial surface. Like the normals, the lung T cells of the beryllium disease patients were dominated by CD45R-0 mRNA transcript+, UCHL1+, T cells. However, on a quantitative basis, the beryllium patients contained far greater numbers of T cells, i.e., the T cell populations on the surface of the normal and inflamed lung are similar in character ("memory" T cells) but differ in numbers (there are far more in the chronic inflammatory state). Thus, T cell populations on the epithelial surface of the normal lung likely reflect the chronic exposure to a diverse set of antigens, with a pattern that is qualitatively similar to that observed among T cells accumulating in response to a single antigen.