The complement of sialyloligosaccharides present on the surface of human tracheal epithelium has been implicated as an important factor in the selection of hemagglutinin receptor specificity of human influenza A virus. Human strains of influenza A virus preferentially recognize host cell receptors bearing SA alpha 2,6Gal sequences, a sequence which is found on the surface of ciliated tracheal epithelium. A fluorescently-labelled H3 human virus strain bound avidly to the apical surface of human tracheal epithelium, while a fluorescently-labelled receptor variant strain, which preferentially binds SA alpha 2,3Gal sequences, showed little binding to the epithelial surface and localized primarily to intracellular mucin droplets. Extracts of human bronchial mucin, which is known to contain sialic acid primarily in the SA alpha 2,3Gal linkage, was a potent inhibitor of the binding of the receptor variant strain to trachea sections, while the binding of the parent strain was unaffected by the presence of mucin. Human bronchial mucin also inhibited the binding of the receptor variant strains, but not the parent virus strains, to human erythrocytes derivatized to contain SA alpha 2,6Gal sequences. These results suggest that a combination of selection pressures present in the respiratory tract environment have resulted in the evolution of a hemagglutinin receptor specificity in human influenza A virus strains which optimizes recognition of, binding to and infection of host cells.