Our objective was to determine the relative contributions of protein synthesis and protein absorption in the rapid accretion of gastrointestinal protein in suckling piglets during the early neonatal period. We measured the rates of tissue protein synthesis using a flooding dose of L-[4-3H]phenylalanine in various visceral and peripheral tissues of neonatal piglets fed water, mature milk or colostrum for 6 h. The jejunal and ileal protein synthesis rates in piglets fed either colostrum or milk were three- to fourfold higher than in piglets fed water. The increased jejunal and ileal protein synthesis could not, however, account for the differences in protein mass between the colostrum-fed and water-fed groups. The relative abundance of IgG, a major porcine colostral protein, in jejunal tissue was markedly higher in piglets fed colostrum than in piglets fed either milk or water. The fractional protein synthesis rates in liver, kidney, spleen and skeletal muscle and the absolute protein synthesis rates in liver and spleen were also greater in piglets fed colostrum than in those fed milk or water. Increased endogenous protein synthesis made only a minor contribution to the increased intestinal protein accretion in neonatal piglets fed colostrum. A much larger proportion of this increase seemed to be a result of absorption and retention of ingested immunoglobulins.