Rabbit tracheal epithelial (RbTE) cells in primary culture undergo at confluence a multistep program of squamous differentiation. This study examines the expression of keratins in RbTE cells in relation to this differentiation process. During the exponential growth phase RbTE cells are undifferentiated and express three major keratins, K5, K14, and K19, and two minor keratins, K6 and K16. Squamous differentiation is accompanied by increased expression of keratins K6, K16, and K19, and in particular of keratin K13, which reacts specifically with the monoclonal antibody AE8. These changes in keratin synthesis coincide with the commitment to terminal differentiation. Retinoic acid, an inhibitor of the expression of the squamous differentiated phenotype, inhibits the increase in the expression of K6, K16, and K13 and reduces the expression of K5 and K14; however, retinoic acid treatment results in increased levels of keratin K19 and K18. Retinoic acid inhibits the expression of K16 and K13 at concentrations as low as 10-9-10-10 M. At least some of these changes in keratins appear to be related to alterations in the cellular levels of the respective mRNAs. Our results indicate that specific changes in keratin expression, in particular keratin K13, correlate with the onset of squamous differentiation in RbTE cells. Induction of the expression of keratin K13 may function as a marker of squamous differentiation in tracheobronchial epithelial cells. © 1989.