The epithelial lining of the gastrointestinal tract forms a regulated, selectively permeable barrier between luminal contents and the underlying tissue compartments. Permeability across the epithelium is, in part, determined by the rate-limiting barrier of the paracellular pathway-the most apical intercellular junction referred to as the tight junction (TJ). The TJ is composed of a multiprotein complex that affiliates with the underlying apical actomyosin ring. TJ structure and function, and therefore epithelial permeability, are influenced by diverse physiological and pathological stimuli; here we review examples of such stimuli that are detected at the cell surface. For example, luminal glucose induces an increase in paracellular permeability to small molecules. Similarly, but by other means, cytokines and leukocytes in the vicinity of the epithelium also regulate TJ structure and paracellular permeability by influencing the TJ protein complex and/or its association with the underlying actin cytoskeleton.