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Eur Respir J. 1994 Sep;7(9):1690-706.

Airway goblet cells: responsive and adaptable front-line defenders.

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  • Dept of Thoracic Medicine, National Heart & Lung Institute, London, UK.


Goblet cells are situated in the epithelium of the conducting airways, often with their apical surfaces protruding into the lumen, a location which fits them for a rapid response to inhaled airway insults. Together with the submucosal glands, goblet cells secrete high molecular weight mucus glycoproteins (mucins), which confer upon the airway surface fluid the requisite biochemical and biophysical properties which determine the efficiency of entrapment and transportation of inhaled irritants, particles and micro-organisms. The diversity of glycosylation of airway mucins may be important in facilitating adherence of micro-organisms to mucus prior to mucociliary clearance. Other secretory products, including lipids and "small" glycoproteins, may also be produced by goblet cells. It is possible that goblet cells have the potential to produce markedly more mucus than do the glands. Mucins are tightly packed in the intracellular granules of the goblet cell. The morphology of these granules varies with fixation technique, and release of mucins may be via a combination of merocrine and apocrine secretion. Discharge of mucus is accomplished remarkably rapidly (tens of milliseconds) and vast quantities of mucus are released (size expansions from the granule of many hundredfold). Depending upon species and preparation, goblet cells discharge mucus in response to a wide variety of stimuli, including proteinases, irritant gases, inflammatory mediators, reactive oxygen species, nerve activation and changes in the biophysical environment. Under normal conditions, goblet cell proliferation and differentiation, particularly to ciliated cells, contributes to maintenance of the airway epithelial cell population. In addition to participating in acute airway defence, goblet cells increase in number in response to chronic airway insult, with a resultant increase in output of mucus. The increase in number of cells is via hyperplastic and metaplastic mechanisms. Early triggers for the development of a hypersecretory epithelium include excessive discharge of mucus and increased expression of airway mucin messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). Cessation of chronic airway stress rapidly reverses the increased number of goblet cells. Irritant-induced increases in number of goblet cells can be inhibited by a variety of drugs with anti-inflammatory and mucoregulatory properties, and the reversal to normal numbers after cessation of the irritation is speeded by these drugs. The ability of goblet cells to be progenitors of ciliated cells, to rapidly produce vast quantities of mucus in response to acute airway insult, and to change in number according to variations in chronic insult indicates that these cells are vitally important responsive and adaptable front-line defenders of the airways.

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