A method for the simultaneous preparation of microvillous and basal membrane vesicles from human placental syncytiotrophoblast is described. Mg2(+)-aggregated basal membranes are separated from microvillous membranes by low-speed centrifugation after initial homogenization and centrifugation steps. Microvillous membranes (MVM) are obtained from the low speed supernatant while basal membranes (BM) contained in the Mg2(+)-aggregated material are resuspended and further purified on a sucrose step gradient. MVM and BM prepared by this method were enriched 20-fold and 11-fold as determined by the membrane marker enzymes, alkaline phosphatase (MVM) and adenylate cyclase (BM). There was minimal cross-contamination of the two isolated plasma membrane fractions and the yields obtained were 26% (MVM) and 21% (BM) compared to the initial homogenate. The MVM and BM fractions were free from contamination by mitochondrial or lysosomal membranes and showed only minor contamination by microsomal membranes. The two membrane fractions were also tested for the presence of non-syncytial plasma membranes by electrophoretic immunoblotting. Contamination of both MVM and BM by fibroblast, endothelial, macrophage and cytotrophoblast plasma membranes amounted to less than 15% of the total membrane protein as determined by immunoblotting. Vesicle orientation, determined from the latency of specific concanavalin A binding, was 88 +/- 4% right-side out for MVM and 73 +/- 12% right-side out for BM. This simple preparative procedure produces a high yield of both MVM and BM from human placenta. The analytical data demonstrates that 'paired' MVM and BM fractions derived from the same placental tissue have a high purity in terms not only of contamination by intracellular membranes, but also in terms of contamination by non-syncytial plasma membranes.