1. Chronic use of Saint John's wort (SJW) has been shown to lower the bioavailability for a variety of co-administered drugs including indinavir, cyclosporin, and digoxin. Decreases in intestinal absorption through induction of the multidrug resistance transporter, P-glycoprotein (P-gp), may explain decreased bioavailability. 2. The present study characterized the response of P-gp to chronic and acute exposure of SJW and hypericin (HYP, a presumed active moiety within SJW) in an in vitro system. Experiments were performed with 3 to 300 microg ml(-1) of methanol-extracted SJW and 0.03 to 3 microM HYP, representing low to high estimates of intestinal concentrations. 3. In induction experiments, LS-180 intestinal carcinoma cells were exposed for 3 days to SJW, HYP, vehicle or a positive control (ritonavir). P-gp was quantified using Western blot analysis. P-gp expression was strongly induced by SJW (400% increase at 300 microg ml(-1)) and by HYP (700% at 3 microM) in a dose-dependent fashion. Cells chronically treated with SJW had decreased accumulation of rhodamine 123, a P-gp substrate, that was reversed with acute verapamil, a P-gp inhibitor. Fluorescence microscopy of intact cells validated these findings. In Caco-2 cell monolayers, SJW and HYP caused moderate inhibition of P-gp-attributed transport at the maximum concentrations tested. 4. SJW and HYP significantly induced P-gp expression at low, clinically relevant concentrations. Similar effects occurring in vivo may explain the decreased bioavailability of P-gp substrate drugs when co-administered with SJW.