A paucity of information exists on the regulation of gene expression in the undifferentiated intestine. The intestinal epithelium is one of the few normal tissues expressing the multidrug resistance (MDR) genes that confer the multidrug resistant phenotype to a variety of tumours. Expression of mdr1a has been observed in the primitive rat intestinal epithelial cell line, IEC-18. It is hypothesized that characterization of MDR gene expression in IEC-18 cells will provide insight into gene regulation in undifferentiated intestinal cells. A series of hamster mdr1a promoter deletion constructs was studied in IEC-18 and a region with 12-13-fold enhancer activity was identified. This region was shown to function in an orientation- and promoter context-independent manner, specifically in IEC-18 cells. Unexpectedly, Northern probing revealed a greater expression of mdr1b than mdr1a in IEC-18 cells. A quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction assay was used to compare the relative expression of MDR genes in IEC cells, fetal intestine, and in the undifferentiated and differentiated components of adult intestinal epithelium. MDR transcript levels in IEC cells were found to resemble those of fetal intestine and small intestinal crypts, where a conversion from mixed mdr1a/mdr1b to predominantly mdr1a expression occurs as cells mature. This work describes two contributions to the field of gene regulation in the undifferentiated intestine--first, the initial characterization of a putative mdr1a enhancer region with specificity for primitive intestinal cells and secondly, the first report of mdr1b detection in the intestine and its expression in primitive cell types.