The peritoneal cavity is important in clinical medicine because of its use as a portal of entry for drugs utilized in regional chemotherapy and as a means of dialysis for anephric patients. The barrier between the therapeutic solution in the cavity and the plasma does not correspond to the classic semipermeable membrane but instead is a complex structure of cells, extracellular matrix, and blood microvessels in the surrounding tissue. New research on the nature of the capillary barrier and on the orderly array of extracellular matrix molecules has provided insights into the physiological basis of osmosis and the alterations in transport that result from infusion of large volumes of fluid. The anatomic peritoneum is highly permeable to water, small solutes, and proteins and therefore is not a physical barrier. However, the cells of the mesothelium play an essential role in the immune response in the cavity and produce cytokines and chemokines in response to contact with noncompatible solutions. The process of inflammation, which depends on the interaction of mesothelial, interstitial, and endothelial cells, ultimately leads to angiogenesis and fibrosis and the functional alteration of the barrier. New animal models, such as the transgenic mouse, will accelerate the discovery of methods to preserve the functional peritoneal barrier.