Active transport of conjugated bile acids by the distal ileum is required for efficient enterohepatic cycling of bile acids. Experiments were performed in the rat to obtain accurate values for Tmax and Michaelis constant (Km) of the absorptive area of the rat ileum and to define the structural specificity of the transport system. The distal fifth (20 cm) of the small intestine from an anesthetized animal with a biliary fistula was perfused using solutions of 10 taurine-conjugated bile acids; a flow rate was used that was sufficiently high such that unstirred water layer effects were negligible and the intraluminal concentration remained unchanged throughout the perfused segment. The absorption rate was equated with the rate of hepatic bile acid secretion. Values of Tmax (mumol/min.kg) were markedly influenced by bile acid structure: cholyltaurine, 12.9; ursocholyltaurine, 9.6; ursodeoxycholyl taurine, 5.0; and lagodeoxycholyl-(3 alpha,12 beta-dihydroxy-cholanoic acid)-taurine, 1.2. Decreasing the length of the side chain of ursodeoxycholate conjugates from 8 to 6 carbon atoms was associated with a modest increase in Tmax values from 5.0 to 9.1 mumols/min.kg. Values of Km correlated with Tmax values and ranged from 0.5 to 5 mmol/L, being highest for those bile acids that were best transported. The Tmax for cholyltaurine transport was not reached when the intraluminal concentration was as high as its critical micellization concentration, precluding the definition of its Tmax; however, for ursocholyltaurine, with a critical micellization concentration of 40 mmol/L, saturation of transport was clearly shown. Kinetic parameters could not be obtained for two common dihydroxy conjugates (chenodeoxycholyltaurine and deoxycholyltaurine) because at a transport rate of 2 mumols/min.kg systemic toxicity and death occurred. These studies define the maximal transport capacity of the rat ileum for taurine-conjugated bile acids; they indicate that the ileal transport system in the rat is of low affinity and high capacity for taurine conjugates of hydrophilic bile acids, and they show that both nuclear substituents and side chain length influence the transport rate of taurine-conjugated bile acids.