Signals transmitted from mesenchyme to epithelia or vice versa constitute the basis of reciprocal epithelial-mesenchymal interactions. As a first step toward understanding epithelial-mesenchymal interactions on the ocular surface where the transit amplifying cell-containing corneal epithelium is anatomically separated from the stem cell-containing limbal epithelium, we sought to characterize the expression patterns of cytokines and their receptors by primary epithelial and early-passaged fibroblast cultures of human cornea and limbus. Northern hybridization with oligonucleotide and cDNA probes to a total of 25 cytokines and 12 of their receptors revealed that the positively expressed cytokines could be divided into the following four patterns. Type I: TGF-α, IL-β, and PDGF-B were expressed exclusively by epithelial cells but their respective receptors EGFR and IL-1R were predominantly and PDGFR-β was exclusively expressed by fibroblasts. Type II: IGF-I, TGF-β1, β2, LIF, and bFGR, and their receptors were expressed by both epithelial cells and fibroblasts. FGFR-1 (flg) and FGFR-2 (bek) were expressed more by fibroblasts and bFGF was expressed more by corneal than limbal epithelial cells. Type III: keratinocyte growth factor (KGF) and hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) were expressed exclusively by fibroblasts and their respective receptors, KGFR and c-met, were predominantly expressed by epithelial cells. Combined with RT-PCR, the quantity of KGF and KGFR transcripts was highest in limbal fibroblasts and epithelial cells, respectively. In contrast, the quantity of HGF and HGFR (c-met) transcripts was highest in corneal fibroblasts and epithelial cells, respectively. Type IV: M-CSF and IL-8 were expressed by fibroblasts and/or epithelial cells but their receptors were not expressed by epithelial cells nor fibroblasts, but by immune or inflammatory cells. In addition to these potential paracrine actions, autocrine actions mediated by TGF-α/EGFR, IL-β/IL1-R, and bFGF/FGFR-1 were more expressed by corneal than limbal epithelial cells. Immunofluorescence staining on human corneoscleral cryosections confirmed that EGFR and bFGF were not expressed by the limbal basal epithelium, but expressed strongly by the corneal epithelium, a pattern consistent with Northern hybridization. These results indicate that ocular surface epithelial cells and fibroblasts can express a myriad of cytokines, among which the first three patterns constitute the network of potential epithelial-mesenchymal cytokine dialogues. The difference of certain cytokine expression between corneal and limbal regions suggests that this network participates in normal epithelial growth and differentiation, and plays an important role in wound healing. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.