To determine whether the route and/or composition of nutritional support alters intestinal barrier function (measured as bacterial translocation), rats were divided into three groups: food (controls), intravenous total parenteral nutrition (IV-TPN) fed, and oral total parenteral nutrition (ORAL-TPN) fed. Bacterial translocation did not occur in the rats that were fed normally, but did occur in 60% of the rats fed the IV-TPN or the ORAL-TPN diets for 7 days (p less than 0.05). Since both the IV-TPN and ORAL-TPN diets induced bacterial translocation and the TPN solution (28% glucose and 4.5% amino acids) lacks fiber, two additional groups of rats were fed orally 2.5 gm cellulose powder/day plus TPN solution by either the intravenous or the oral route. The addition of cellulose powder decreased the incidence of bacterial translocation to 8% in the group fed the ORAL-TPN diet and to 0% in the group fed the IV-TPN diet. Cellulose improved intestinal barrier function, even though it did not prevent bacterial overgrowth or the loss of mucosal mass in the rats fed the IV-TPN or ORAL-TPN diets. Cellulose powder appears to have prevented bacterial translocation primarily by preventing IV-TPN- or ORAL-TPN-induced alterations in mucosal structure. Thus the oral administration of this fiber maintains intestinal barrier function and prevents bacterial translocation even in the absence of oral nutrients.