School of Anatomy and Human Biology - The University of Western Australia

     Blue Histology - Epithelia and Glands


Lab Guides and Images

Simple Epithelia

Simple Squamous and Simple Columnar Epithelia
venule (sublingual gland, human ) and duodenum, cat - H&E

Stratified Epithelia

Stratified Squamous and Stratified Columnar Epithelia
oesophagus, human and parotid gland, human - H&E

Special Cytological Features of Epithelia

Transitional and Pseudostratified Epithelia
ureter, monkey and trachea, human - H&E


Classification of Exocrine Glands

Tubular Glands
intestinal glands (colon), human - van Gieson

Secretory Mechanisms

Histological Structure of Exocrine Glands

Large Serous and Mucous Glands
parotid and sublingual glands, human - H&E

Additional Resources

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Large Images
Search the Large Images page with these keywords: simple columnar epithelium, stratified columnar epithelium, stratified squamous epithelium, pseudostratified columnar epithelium, transitional epithelium, goblet cells, serous gland, serous acini, mucous gland or mucous acini.
Magnification & Stage Simulations:
parotid gland, human, H&E - serous gland, simple columnar epithelium, stratified columnar epithelium
thick skin, H&E - simple tubular glands, stratified cuboidal epithelium
trachea, human, H&E - ciliated pseudostratified columnar epithelium with goblet cells, mixed mucous and serous gland
Self Assessment
Choose subject area "epithelia and glands" on the Quiz page


Epithelia are tissues consisting of closely apposed cells without intervening intercellular substances. Epithelia are avascular, but all epithelia "grow" on an underlying layer of vascular connective tissue. The connective tissue and the epithelium are separated by a basement membrane. Epithelium covers all free surfaces of the body. Epithelium also lines the large internal body cavities, where it is termed mesothelium. Furthermore, the internal surfaces of blood and lymph vessels are lined by epithelium, here called endothelium.

Epithelia are classified on the basis of the number of cell layers and the shape of the cells in the surface layer.

Simple Epithelia

Simple squamous epithelium

This type is composed of a single layer of flattened, scale- or plate-like cells. It is quite common in the body. The large body cavities and heart, blood vessels and lymph vessels are typically lined by a simple squamous epithelium. The nuclei of the epithelial cells are often flattened or ovoid, i.e. egg-shaped, and they are located close to the centre of the cells.

Simple cuboidal epithelium

Cells appear cuboidal in sections perpendicular to the surface of the epithelium. Viewed from the surface of the epithelium they look rather like small polygons. Simple cuboidal epithelium occurs in small excretory ducts of many glands, the follicles of the thyroid gland, the tubules of the kidney and on the surface of the ovaries.
Can there be "low cuboidal" epithelia?

Simple columnar epithelium

The cells forming a simple columnar epithelium are taller than they are wide. The nuclei of cells within the epithelium are usually located at the same height within the cells - often close to the base of the cells. An example is the simple columnar epithelium which lines the internal surface of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) from the cardia of the stomach to the rectum.

epithelial cell shapes

? Identifying Epithelia

The outlines of individual epithelial cells are not always visible, and it may be difficult to identify the shape of the cells.

It is often helpful to look at the shape, location and spacing of the nuclei in the epithelium, which together will allow a very good guess at the shape of the cells forming the epithelium.

epithelial layers

How many cell layers seem to be visible in a section depends very much on the angle between the plane of the section plane the surface of the epithelium.

Oblique sections of epithelium will be visible in almost all slides of organs in which epithelium lines a surface with a very irregular profile. A single surface is usually not lined by several types of epithelia.

The number of epithelial cell layers will usually be the smallest number of layers visible anywhere along the surface lined by the epithelium.

Suitable Slides
simple squamous epithelium: any section containing blood vessels, sections of organs which include an outer lining (or serosa) of the organs, or sections of kidney (parietal blades of Bowman's capsules) - H&E, trichrome
simple cuboidal epithelium: sections of ovaries (epithelium lining the surface), thyroid gland (follicles), kidney (tubules) or large glands (e.g. parotid gland) with well preserved small ducts
simple columnar epithelium: sections of the small intestine (duodenum, jejunum or ileum), uterus (uterine glands), liver (large bile ducts) or gall bladder - H&E, trichrome

Sublingual Gland, Human, H&E
Blood vessels are probably present in all sections you will ever see. With very few exceptions, they are lined by a simple squamous epithelium. The individual epithelial cells are extremely flattened and form a much larger part of the surface than individual cells in cuboidal or columnar epithelia. The nuclei of the squamous epithelial cells are also flattened and often stain darkly. Not every epithelial cell nucleus will be included in the plane of the section, and if the vessel is very small (e.g. a capillary), there may not be any visible nuclei in the epithelial lining.
Capillaries and other small vessels are easily deformed during tissue processing, and the epithelium of larger vessels may be damaged or look corrugated. It may therefore take a little more patience than you expect to find a "good" simple squamous epithelium.
Draw a small vessel with its epithelial lining, label the features visible in your drawing and include a suitable scale.

Duodenum, Rat, H&E and Ileum, Human - H&E
The small intestines are lined by a simple columnar epithelium. Most of the epithelial cells (enterocytes) are involved in the absorption of components of the digested food in the lumen of the intestines. Complex folds of the intestinal lining increase the surface area available for absorption. The plane of the section will therefore often pass at an oblique angle through the epithelium. The epithelium may look stratified where this happens. Scan along the epithelium until you find a spot where it is cut perpendicular to its surface, i.e. where it looks like a simple columnar epithelium. Mucus producing goblet cells are a second cell type of this epithelium. Mucus stains only weakly or not at all in H&E stained sections. Round, light "hollows" in the epithelium represent the apical cytoplasm of the goblet cells, which is filled with mucin-containing secretory vesicles.
Microvilli extend from the apical surface of epithelial cells into the intestinal lumen. They increase surface area by a factor of ~20 and thereby facilitate absorption. Together, the microvilli are visible as a light red band along the apical limit of the epithelium, i.e. the side of the epithelium facing the lumen of the intestine. This band is call the brush border.
Draw and label the epithelium. Include goblet cells in your drawing.


Stratified Epithelia

Stratified squamous epithelium

Stratified squamous epithelia vary in thickness depending on the number of cell layers present. The deepest cells, which are in contact with the basement membrane, are cuboidal or columnar in shape. This layer is usually named the basal cell layer, and the cells are called basal cells. Basal cells are mitotically active and replace the cells of the epithelium which are lost by "wear and tear". The basal cell layer is followed by layers of cells with polyhedral outlines. Close to the surface of the epithelium, cells become more flattened. At the surface of the epithelium, cells appear like flat scales - similar to the epithelial cells of simple squamous epithelia.
Remember that it is the shape of the cell which form the surface of the epithelium which gives the name to the epithelium.

Stratified cuboidal and columnar epithelia

are not common. A two-layered cuboidal epithelium is, for example, seen in the ducts of the sweat glands. Stratified columnar epithelia are found in the excretory ducts of the mammary gland and the main excretory duct of the large salivary glands.

Suitable Slides
stratified squamous epithelium: sections of the oesophagus, tongue or vagina - H&E, van Gieson, trichrome
stratified cuboidal epithelium: skin (excretory ducts of sweat glands) - H&E
stratified columnar epithelium: sections of the parotid gland or mammary gland - H&E

Oesophagus, human - H&E
The oesophagus is lined by a stratified squamous epithelium consisting of many cell layers. Basal cells often form a well defined layer at the border of the epithelium to the underlying connective tissue. The underlying connective tissue forms finger-like extensions towards the lumen of the oesophagus, which are called papillae. The border between epithelium and connective tissue may appear quite irregular because of the papillae. This irregular border aids in anchoring of the epithelium to the connective tissue. If these extensions are not cut exactly along their long axis, they may look like isolated small islands of connective tissue and blood vessels within the epithelium.
Draw the stratified squamous epithelium of the oesophagus and label your drawing. Try to draw a little schematic illustration which shows how the plane of section would effect the appearance of the connective tissue extensions.

Parotid Gland, Human - H&E
Stratified columnar epithelia are found in the largest excretory ducts of some glands. The parotid gland, a large salivary gland, is one of them. Several epithelial types are found in the duct system of the parotid. The smallest ducts, which are embedded in the secretory tissue (intralobular ducts), are lined by cuboidal or columnar epithelia. Small ducts, which are embedded in connective tissue located between areas of secretory tissue (interlobular ducts), are lined by columnar or pseudostratified epithelia. These ducts finally coalesce to form the main excretory duct of the parotid which is lined by a stratified columnar epithelium.
Draw the stratified columnar epithelium seen in the largest ducts and label your drawing.

Pseudostratified and Transitional Epithelia

These two types of epithelia are difficult to classify using the shape of the cells in the surface layer and the number of the cell layers as criteria.

Transitional epithelium

Transitional epithelium is found exclusively in the excretory urinary passages (the renal calyces and pelvis, the ureter, the urinary bladder, and part of the urethra).

The shape of the cells in the surface layer of a transitional epithelium varies with the degree of distension of the organs whose lumen is lined by this type of epithelium. In the 'relaxed' state of the epithelium, it seems to be formed by many cell layers. The most basal cells have a cuboidal or columnar shape. There are several layers of polyhedral cells, and, finally, a layer of superficial cells, which have a convex, dome-shaped luminal surface. In the distended state of the epithelium only one or two layers of cuboidal cells are followed by a superficial layer of large, low cuboidal or squamous cells. In the distended state the epithelium will resemble a stratified squamous epithelium.

Pseudostratified columnar epithelium

All cells of this type of epithelium are in contact with the basement membrane, but not all of them reach the surface of the epithelium. Nuclei of the epithelial cells are typically located in the widest part of the cell. Consequently, the nuclei of cells which do or do not reach the surface of the epithelium are often located at different heights within the epithelium and give the epithelium a stratified appearance. The epithelium will look stratified but it is not - hence its name "pseudostratified". Pseudostratified columnar epithelia are found in the excretory ducts of many glands.

Suitable Slides
transitional epithelium: sections of ureter or bladder - H&E
pseudostratified epithelium: sections of the trachea - H&E

Bladder, Monkey - H&E
At a first glance a transitional epithelium looks like a stratified cuboidal epithelium. Several rows of nuclei appear to be topped by a layer of dome-shaped cells which bulge into the lumen of the ureter. The shape of the surface cells and the number of rows change if the bladder is distended. The number of rows decreases. This decrease should tell us that many of the nuclei located in different layers of the epithelium belong to cells which are all in contact with the basement membrane. With distension, the shape of the cells in the surface layer will become squamous.
Draw the epithelium and label the features you can see. Add a simple schematic drawing of how you expect the epithelium to look like if the ureter is distended.

It has not yet been resolved if all the epithelial cells are in contact with the basement membrane. Some texts consider transitional epithelium as a specialised stratified epithelium while others group it with pseudostratified epithelia. Maybe it is best to also consider it 'transitional' in this regard.

Trachea, Human - H&E
At least two, sometimes three rows of nuclei are seen in the pseudostratified columnar epithelium lining the trachea. The nuclei belong to cells which are all in contact with the basement membrane. The epithelial lining of the trachea is also one of the few examples of a basement membrane clearly visible in H&E stained sections. Epithelial cells can be ciliated or they can be goblet cells (unicellular exocrine glands). Basal cell regenerate other cell types of the epithelium. Capillaries and small vessels are visible in the connective tissue beneath the epithelium.
A ciliated pseudostratified columnar epithelium with goblet cells is a characteristic feature of parts of the respiratory system, where it is call respiratory epithelium. It contains several cell types in addition to ciliated, goblet and basal cells.
Draw the epithelium at high magnification and label your drawing.

Special Cytological Features of Epithelia

Basement membrane or basal lamina
Epithelia are separated from the underlying connective tissue by an extracellular supporting layer called the basement membrane. The basement membrane is composed of two sublayers. The basal lamina (about 80 nm thick) consists of fine protein filaments embedded in an amorphous matrix. Membrane proteins of the epithelial cells are anchored in the basal lamina, which is also produced by the epithelial cells. The major components of the basal lamina are two glycoproteins - laminin and (usually type IV) collagen. The reticular lamina consists of reticular fibres embedded in ground substance. The fibres of the reticular lamina connect the basal lamina with the underlying conective tissue. The components of the reticular lamina are synthesised by cells of the connective tissue underlying the epithelium.
In addition to its function as support of the epithelium, the basal lamina acts as a selectively permeable filter between epithelium and connective tissue.

Unless special stains are used, the basement membrane is rarely visible using light microscopy. You can read more about reticular fibres and ground substance on the Connective Tissues page.

Specialisations of the apical surface
Microvilli and stereocilia are finger- or thread-shaped extensions of the epithelial cells. Their main function is to increase the surface area of epithelial cells. They are typically found in epithelia active in absorption. Microvilli contain actin filaments, which are in contact with the terminal web of the cell. The only difference between microvilli and stereocilia is their length. Microvilli are much shorter than stereocilia. Stereocilia are, despite their name ("cilia"), not actively moving structures.

Using light microscopy, stereocilia are difficult to discern from cilia.

Specialisations of the lateral and basal surfaces
Connective tissue is responsible for the structural integrity of most organs. As mentioned above, it is absent from epithelia. Instead, tissue integrity as well as the barrier function of epithelia is taken care of by extensive cell-to-cell contacts between epithelial cells. These functions are mediated by several specialisations in the lateral and basal parts of the cell membranes of the epithelial cells.


are specialisations of the lateral cell membranes which mediate cell adhesion. Proteins inserted into the cell membrane of the adjacent cells form a protein-'zipper' linking the cells. Fibers of the cytoskeleton attach to the cytoplasmic side of the desmosome to stabilise the area of contact. Hemi-desmosomes mediate the attachment of the epithelial cells to the basement membrane.
A group of glycoproteins (cadherins) inserted into the opposing plasma membranes mediate cell-to-cell adhesion at desmosomes and also at the adhesion zones or patches mentioned below. Integrins, another group of proteins, allow the cell to attach to the matrix proteins of the basal lamina.

Intermediate junctions (zonula adherens)

are structurally not as well-characterised as desmosomes. An intermediate junction typically appears as a close and consistent apposition (15-20 nanometers) of the cell membranes near the apical cell surface. Intermediate junctions surround the entire cell. Again, fibres of the cytoskeleton insert into the cytoplasmic side of this membrane specialisation. Patches of adhesion resemble intermediate junctions structurally, but form more localized, patch- or strip-like contacts between neighbouring cells. They are found scattered over the lateral surfaces of the epithelial cell.

The above mentioned membrane specialisations mediate cell-adhesion but are less well suited to support one of the essential functions of epithelia - the isolation of the interior of the body from the outside world. A tight junction (zonula occludens) between epithelial cells mediates this aspect of epithelial function.

Proteins inserted into the cell membranes of adjacent cells 'stitch' the membranes of the cells together and provide an effective barrier to the diffusion of substances from the outside of the epithelium (called luminal side if the epithelium covers the surface of a tubular structure). Several "rows of stitches" may be found. Their number depends on the demand to reduce diffusion across the epithelium. Each of these rows reduces diffusion by about a factor 10 of what it was 'before'.


are cells or aggregations of cells whose function is secretion.

Both endocrine and exocrine glands are developmentally derived from epithelia, which form a down-growth into the underlying connective tissue. The cells forming this down-growth then develop the special characteristics of the mature gland. Exocrine glands maintain the connection with the surface epithelium, whereas the connection is lost by endocrine glands.

Classification of Exocrine Glands

Exocrine glands may be classified according to cell number, and/or the shape and branching pattern of their secretory portions and ducts.

Unicellular Glands

consist of a single secretory cell. In mammals the only example of unicellular exocrine glands are goblet cells, which occur in the epithelium of many mucous membranes. Goblet cells secrete the glycoprotein mucin, which by the uptake of water is converted into a slimy substance, mucus.

Multicellular glands

The simplest form of a multicellular gland is a secretory epithelial sheath - a surface epithelium consisting entirely of secretory cells (e.g. the epithelium lining the inner surface of the stomach, where the mucous secretion protects the stomach wall from the acidic contents of the stomach). Other multicellular glands have their secretory portion embedded in the connective tissue underlying the epithelium. The secretion is either discharged directly from the secretory portion onto the epithelium or reaches the epithelium via a duct system that consists of non-secretory cells.

The secretory portion may have a variety of shapes. Secretory cells may form

  • tubes in tubular glands,
  • acini in acinar glands or
  • alveoli in alveolar glands.

Combinations exist - the pancreas is a tubulo-acinar gland, in which each section of the secretory system has a specialized function.
The precursors of digestive enzymes are produced by the acinar cells. Tubular cells secrete the alkaline bicarbonate solution which eventually neutralizes the acidic contents of the stomach that are released into the duodenum.

Multicellular glands with an unbranched excretory duct are called simple. We talk about a compound gland when the excretory duct is branched. Finally, the part of the gland consisting of secretory cells is branched in a (surprise!) branched gland.

The classification scheme may appear somewhat elaborate - but there are many exocrine glands around. All of them can be identified and described by this scheme, and some ideas about their function can be derived from this description.

Suitable Slides
unicellular exocrine glands (goblet cells): sections of intestines (duodenum, jejunum, ileum or colon) or trachea - H&E
secretory epithelial sheath: stomach - H&E

straight tubular glands:
sections of stomach (principal glands) or colon (intestinal glands) - van Gieson, H&E
coiled tubular glands: sections of skin (sweat glands) - see lab section on the Integumentary System page.

Colon, Human - van Gieson
Straight tubular glands extend from the surface of the colon into the underlying connective tissue. Although they are present throughout the intestines they are largest in the colon and, because of the smooth inner surface of the colon, they often show in good longitudinal or transverse sections. The lumen of the glands is narrow and surrounded by secretory cells of several types, which include goblet cells. The connective tissue beneath the epithelium and surrounding the glands in the colon contains more cells than the connective tissue beneath other epithelia that were considered on this page. This is a characteristic feature of the epithelia in the digestive system. Glands cut at slightly oblique angles will connect to the lumen outside of the plane of the section.
If possible, draw both longitudinally and transversely sections intestinal glands. Include part of the surrounding connective tissue and surface epithelium.

Secretory Mechanisms

The secretory cells can release their secretory products by one of three mechanisms.

Merocrine secretion
corresponds to the process of exocytosis. Vesicles open onto the surface of the cell, and the secretory product is discharged from the cell without any further loss of cell substance.
Apocrine secretion
designates a mechanism in which part of the apical cytoplasm of the cells is lost together with the secretory product. The continuity of the plasma membrane is restored by the fusion of the broken edges of the membrane, and the cell is able to accumulate the secretory product anew. This mechanism is used by apocrine sweat glands, the mammary glands and the prostate.
secretion designates the breakdown and discharge of the entire secretory cell. It is only seen in the sebaceous glands of the skin.

There are two additional mechanisms by which secretory cells can release their products. Lipid soluble substances may diffuse out of the secretory cell (e.g. steroid hormone-producing endocrine cells). Transporters (membrane proteins) may actively move the secretory product across the plasma membrane (e.g. the acid producing parietal cells of the gastric glands). These secretory mechanisms may not involve any light microscopically visible specialisations of the cell.

Histological Structure of Large Exocrine Glands

The relationship between the secretory tissue (parenchyma) of glands and the supporting connective tissue is similar in most larger glands. Externally the entire gland is surrounded by a layer of dense connective tissue, the capsule. Connective tissue sheets (septa) extend from the capsule into the secretory tissue and subdivide the gland into a number of lobes. Thinner connective tissue septa subdivide the lobes into a number of lobules. Reticular connective tissue (hardly visible in H&E stained sections) surrounds and supports the secretory units of the glands (alveoli, acini etc.) and the initial parts of the excretory ducts if present.

Blood and lymph vessels as well as nerves penetrate the capsule and form a delicate network between the secretory units and the initial parts of the duct system.

The main excretory duct conveys the secretory product to one of the external surfaces of the body. Other parts of the duct system are named according to their relation to the lobes and lobules of the gland.

The appearance of the different portions of the duct system is quite variable from gland to gland and may allow the identification of the gland. Quite often, the appearance of parts of the duct system also permits some deductions about their functions.

? Note that lobes and lobules are defined by their relationship to each other. Many small lobules may form one large lobe. Neither size nor the spatial relationship between different parts of the tissue can be unequivocally determined in a single, two-dimensional section of the tissue. Lobes and interlobar ducts may therefore be difficult to distinguish from lobules and interlobular ducts.

Suitable Slides
alveolar gland: lactating mammary gland H&E - see lab section on the Female Reproductive System page.
serous and mucous acinar glands: sections of parotid gland, sublingual gland or tongue (lingual salivary glands) - H&E

Parotid Gland, Human - H&E
Find an area of secretory tissue at low magnification, and scan over this area at high magnification. Within the lobules and between the acini of the parotid you can find two types of ducts. Since they are both located within the lobules they are both intralobular ducts. Striated ducts are lined by a simple tall columnar epithelium. Intercalated ducts are lined by a simple cuboidal epithelium and connect individual acini to the striated ducts.
Try to capture the features of the acini, intercalated and striated ducts in one compound drawing which shows how they connect to each other. Label your drawing.

Parotid Gland, Human and Sublingual Gland, Human - H&E
Many secretory cells and the secretory structures formed by them belong to one of two morphologically distinct forms: serous or mucous. Serous secretions have a low viscosity, i.e. they are rather "watery". Mucous secretions have a high viscosity, i.e. they are rather "slimy". The apical cytoplasm of the cells forming serous acini is usually well-stained. Secretory vesicles are visible in the apical cytoplasm in well-preserve tissue. The nuclei are round or slightly ovoid and located in the basal cytoplasm of the cells. The bluish color of the basal cytoplasm reflects the presence of large amounts of rough endoplasmatic reticulum.
The contents of the secretory vesicles in the apical cytoplasm of cells forming mucous acini are only weakly stained. These empty-looking vesicles give the apical cytoplasm of mucus-producing cells a distinct "foamy" or "frothy" appearance. The nuclei of mucous cells appear darker and smaller than the nuclei of serous cells. They also seem to be "pressed" against the basal limit of the cells and may look flattened with an angular ("edgy") outline. Glands containing mucous acini (e.g. the sublingual glands) are called mucous glands. Glands containing serous acini (e.g. the parotid glands) are called serous glands. If both types of acini are present the gland is muco-serous.
Identify and draw serous and mucous acini at high magnification. Label your drawing. Make sure that the features which characterise serous and mucous acini are visible in your drawing - if necessary use a little artistic freedom.

page content and construction: Lutz Slomianka
last updated: 6/08/09