Enterotoxin-producing Escherichia coli are major causes of pediatric diarrhea in developing countries. The heat-stable enterotoxin of Escherichia coli (STa) causes diarrhea by virtue of its ability to bind to and stimulate intestinal membrane-bound guanylate cyclase, generating cyclic GMP (cGMP). Previous work showed that a fucosylated oligosaccharide fraction of human milk was able to protect suckling mice from the secretory effects of STa, but the mechanism of the protection could not be determined. Oligosaccharide fractions from human milk were tested for their ability to block the biochemical effects of STa in T84 cells, a human colon carcinoma line responsive to the toxin. Total and fucosylated oligosaccharide fractions were found to inhibit STa-stimulated guanylate cyclase activity in T84 cell membranes and cGMP production in intact T84 cells by 60-80%. In addition, the total oligosaccharide fraction and the fucosylated oligosaccharide fraction inhibited 125I-STa binding significantly (17% and 27% inhibition, respectively). These findings demonstrate the protective activity of human milk oligosaccharides against STa in a human-derived cell line and show that the biochemical step blocked by oligosaccharides is STa-mediated stimulation of guanylate cyclase. This represents a novel mechanism by which human milk oligosaccharides protect against diarrhea.