A sensitive 4 h 51Cr-release cytotoxicity assay has been developed using as targets colonic epithelial cells obtained by Dispase-collagenase digestion of resected mucosa or colonoscopic biopsies. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (MNC) from most healthy donors showed low, but significant levels of cytotoxicity for normal epithelial cell target cells of 8.7 (4.4) % (mean (SD)) and similar levels were found in 14 ulcerative colitis (6.5 (4.4) %) and 16 Crohn's disease (6.2 (5.2) %) patients. Neither drug therapy nor disease activity influenced the results. The sensitivity of colonic epithelial cells isolated from inflamed and histologically normal mucosa to lysis by peripheral blood MNC from a single donor was not affected by the underlying disease. Anti-epithelial cell activity did not correlate with anti-K562 activity and the cytotoxic cell was plastic non-adherent and Leu-llb. None of 15 MNC populations isolated from mucosa of normal, tumour bearing, or chronically inflamed intestine exhibited significant lysis of colonic epithelial cells despite killing of K562 target cells in 10. Lymphokine activated killer (LAK) cells, generated by interleukin-2 stimulation in vitro of nine intestinal and seven peripheral blood MNC populations, exhibited high levels of lysis of K562 cells but, on every occasion, failed to lyse colonic epithelial cells. These data indicate that spontaneously cytotoxic or LAK cells are unlikely to play a role in the generation of colonic epithelial cell injury by direct cytotoxicity in inflammatory bowel disease.