Background: Rescue or correction of CFTR function in native epithelia is the ultimate goal of CF therapeutics development. Wild-type (WT) CFTR introduction and replacement is also of particular interest. Such therapies may be complicated by possible CFTR self-assembly into an oligomer or multimer. Results: Surprisingly, functional CFTR assays in native airway epithelia showed that the most common CFTR mutant, ΔF508-CFTR (ΔF-CFTR), inhibits WT-CFTR when both forms are co-expressed. To examine more mechanistically, both forms of CFTR were transfected transiently in varying amounts into IB3-1 CF human airway epithelial cells and HEK-293 human embryonic kidney cells null for endogenous CFTR protein expression. Increasing amounts of ΔF-CFTR inhibited WT-CFTR protein processing and function in CF human airway epithelial cells but not in heterologous HEK-293 cells. Stably expressed ΔF-CFTR in clones of the non-CF human airway epithelial cell line, CALU-3, also showed reduction in cAMP-stimulated anion secretion and in WT-CFTR processing. An ultimate test of this dominant negative-like effect of ΔF-CFTR on WT-CFTR was the parallel study of two different CF mouse models: the ΔF-CFTR mouse and the bitransgenic CFTR mouse corrected in the gut but null in the lung and airways. WT/ΔF heterozygotes had an intermediate phenotype with regard to CFTR agonist responses in in vivo nasal potential difference (NPD) recordings and in Ussing chamber recordings of short-circuit current (ISC) in vitro on primary tracheal epithelial cells isolated from the same mice. In contrast, CFTR bitransgenic +/ heterozygotes had no difference in their responses versus +/+ wild-type mice. Conclusions: Taken altogether, these data suggest that ΔF-CFTR and WT-CFTR co-assemble into an oligomeric macromolecular complex in native epithelia and share protein processing machinery and regulation at the level of the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). As a consequence, ΔF-CFTR slows WT-CFTR protein processing and limits its expression and function in the apical membrane of native airway epithelia. Implications of these data for the relative health of CF heterozygous carriers, for CFTR protein processing in native airway epithelia, and for the relative efficacy of different CF therapeutic approaches is significant and is discussed. © 2012 Tucker et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.