Increased epithelial permeability is associated with intestinal inflammation, but there is little information on factors that regulate barrier function in the absence of or before inflammation. We examined if interleukin (IL)-4, or serum from atopic individuals, could alter the barrier function of human colonic epithelial (T84) monolayers to antigenic-sized macromolecules. IL-4 and atopic serum significantly decreased T84 monolayer resistance and increased transepithelial horseradish peroxidase (HRP) transport. Bidirectional transport studies demonstrated that IL-4 selectively enhanced apical-to-basal movement of HRP. HRP transport induced by IL-4 was inhibited by cold (4 degrees C) and the tyrosine kinase inhibitor genistein, but not the protein kinase C inhibitor staurosporine. Electron microscopic analysis demonstrated that both transcellular and paracellular pathways were affected. Anti-IL-4 antibodies abolished the increase in HRP transport in response to both IL-4 and serum. We speculate that enhanced production of IL-4 in allergic conditions may be a predisposing factor to inflammation by allowing uptake of luminal antigens that gain access to the mucosal immune system.