To better understand the pathogenesis of infantile viral gastroenteritis, we studied Na+ and Cl- fluxes in vitro in short-circuited jejunal epithelium from 8-10-day-old piglets after infection with a standard dose of human rotavirus given via nasogastric tube. 11 infected piglets, all of whom became ill, were compared with 9 uninfected, healthy litter-mates. When killed 72 h after infection, intestinal villi were shorter and crypts deeper (P less than 0.025) in duodenum, upper jejunum, and mid-small intestine, but not ileum in infected piglets. Virus antigen was seen by fluorescence microscopy in occasional jejunal villus tip cells in only four infected piglets and no controls at 72 h. Net Na+ and Cl- fluxes did not differ from noninfected litter-mate controls under basal conditions, but response to glucose was blunted in infected piglets (P less than 0.001). Theophylline stimulated net Cl- secretion in both infected and control animals, and cyclic AMP concentration in isolated jejunal villus enterocytes did not differ significantly. In isolated jejunal villus enterocytes of infected piglets, thymidine kinase activity increased (P less than 0.001), and sucrase activity decreased (P less than 0.001). We conclude that in this invasive enteritis caused by a major human viral pathogen, glucose-coupled Na+ transport is impaired in the jejunum at a time when the villus epithelium shows enzyme characteristics of crypt epithelium, and when little or no virus is present. These findings are identical to those occurring in an invasive coronavirus enteritis of piglets but differ markedly from those seen with enterotoxigenic diarrhea.