Natural and synthetic polycationic proteins, such as protamine, have been used to reproduce the tissue injury and changes in epithelial permeability caused by positively charged substances released by polymorphonuclear cells during inflammation. Protamine has diverse and often conflicting effects on epithelial permeability. The effects of this polycation on the distribution and expression of tight junction (TJ)-associated proteins have not yet been investigated. In this work, we examined the influence of protamine on paracellular barrier function and TJ structure using two strains of the epithelial Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cell line that differed in their TJ properties ("tight" TJ-strain I and "leaky" TJ-strain II). Protamine induced concentration-, time- and strain-dependent alterations in transepithelial electrical resistance (Rt) only when applied to apical or apical+basolateral monolayer surfaces, indicating a polarity of action. In MDCK II cells, protamine (50 microg/ml) caused a significant increase in Rt that returned to control values after 2 h. However, the treatment of this MDCK strain with a higher concentration of protamine (250 microg/ml) significantly decreased the Rt after 30 min. In contrast, treated MDCK I monolayers showed a significant decrease in Rt after apical treatment with protamine at both concentrations. The protamine-induced decrease in Rt was paralleled by an increase in the phenol red basal-to-apical flux in both MDCK strains, suggesting disruption of the paracellular barrier. Marked changes in cytoskeletal F-actin distribution/polymerization and a significant reduction in the junctional expression of the tight junctional proteins occludin and claudin-1 but subtle alterations in ZO-1 were observed following protamine-elicited paracellular barrier disruption. In conclusion, protamine induces alterations in the epithelial barrier function of MDCK monolayers that may involve the cytoskeleton and TJ-associated proteins. The various actions of protamine on epithelial function may reflect different degrees of interaction of protamine with the plasma membrane and different intracellular processes triggered by this polycation.