PURPOSE: Cell surface mucins are a group of highly O-glycosylated transmembrane glycoproteins responsible for the protection of epithelial cells on mucosal surfaces. The aim of this study was to investigate the localization and regulation of mucin 20 (MUC20) at the ocular surface. METHODS: Localization of MUC20 in human corneal and conjunctival epithelia was evaluated by immunofluorescence microscopy. Immortalized corneal (HCLE) and conjunctival (HCjE) cell lines were grown at different stages of differentiation and subjected to quantitative PCR and Western blot analyses. Cell surface proteins on apical cell membranes were biotinylated and isolated by neutravidin chromatography. RESULTS: The MUC20 was detected throughout the entire human ocular surface epithelia, predominantly in cell membranes within intermediate cell layers. In conjunctiva, MUC20 also was observed in the cytoplasm of apical cells within the stratified squamous epithelium, but not in goblet cells. Quantitative PCR and immunoblotting demonstrated expression of MUC20 in HCLE and HCjE cells. Induction of differentiation with serum-containing medium resulted in upregulation of MUC20 mRNA and protein. Biotin labeling of the surface of stratified cultures revealed low levels of MUC20 protein on apical glycocalyces. Further, MUC20 was not detected in the cell culture media or in human tears, suggesting that the extracellular domain of MUC20 is not released from the ocular surface as described previously for other cell surface mucins. CONCLUSIONS: Our results indicate that MUC20 is a novel transmembrane mucin expressed by the human corneal and conjunctival epithelia, and suggest that differential expression of MUC20 during differentiation has a role in maintaining ocular surface homeostasis.