The human oesophageal epithelium is subject to damage from thermal stresses and low extracellular pH that can play a role in the cancer progression sequence, thus identifying a physiological model system that can be used to determine how stress responses control carcinogenesis. The classic heat shock protein HSP70 is not induced but rather is down-regulated after thermal injury to squamous epithelium ex vivo; this prompted a longer-term study to address the nature of the heat shock response in this cell type. An ex vivo epithelial culture system was subsequently used to identify three major proteins of 78, 70, and 58 kDa, whose steady-state levels are elevated after heat shock. Two of the three heat shock proteins were identified by mass spectrometric sequencing to be the calcium-calmodulin homologue transglutaminase-3 (78 kDa) and a recently cloned oesophageal-specific gene called C1orf10, which encodes a 53-kDa putative calcium binding protein we have named squamous epithelial heat shock protein 53 (SEP53). The 70-kDa heat shock protein (we have named SEP70) was not identifiable by mass spectrometry, but it was purified and studied immunochemically to demonstrate that it is distinct from HSP70 protein. Monoclonal antibodies to SEP70 protein were developed to indicate that: (a) SEP70 is induced by exposure of cultured cells to low pH or glucose starvation, under conditions where HSP70 protein was strikingly down-regulated; and (b) SEP70 protein exhibits variable expression in preneoplastic Barrett's epithelium under conditions where HSP70 protein is not expressed. These results indicate that human oesophageal squamous epithelium exhibits an atypical heat shock protein response, presumably due to the evolutionary adaptation of cells within this organ to survive in an unusual microenvironment exposed to chemical, thermal and acid reflux stresses.