Caco-2 cells, which express spontaneous enterocytic differentiation at confluency, is one of the most relevant in vitro models for the study of differentiation and regulation of intestinal functions. However, these cells are normally cultured in the presence of 15-20% serum which renders extremely complex the identification of the factors involved in the regulation of both proliferation and differentiation. This study has been devoted to the establishment of chemically defined culture conditions which can sustain growth and differentiation of Caco-2 cells. The replacement of serum by ITS (insulin, transferrin, and selenium) allowed for normal structural and functional differentiation of cells as revealed by the establishment of cell polarity and the expression of brush-border membrane enzyme markers (sucrase, maltase, lactase, alkaline phosphatase, gamma-glutamyltransferase, aminopeptidase N, and dipeptidyl-dipeptidase IV), although the levels of sucrase activity were lower in ITS-supplemented medium. Coating petridishes with either type IV collagen or basement membrane proteins (Matrigel) did not improve the differentiation of cells, brush-border membrane enzyme activities being, in fact, lower when the cells were grown on these substrata. When triiodothyronine (T3, 5 x 10(-8) M) was added to the ITS-supplemented medium, disaccharidase and alkaline phosphatase activities were significantly increased while gamma-glutamyltransferase activity was diminished by T3 and stimulated by epidermal growth factor (1.6 x 10(-6) M). On the other hand, hydrocortisone (HC, 10(-6) M) did not modify disaccharidase and peptidase activities. These data clearly show that Caco-2 cells can be maintained in serum-free medium and that this system allows the study of the factors involved in the regulation of the differentiation of enterocyte in vitro.