Given the role of microtubules in directing the transport of many intracellular organelles, we investigated whether intact microtubules were also required for transcytosis across epithelia. Using polarized MDCK cells expressing receptors for the Fc domain of IgG (FcRII-B2) or polymeric immunoglobulin (pIg-R), we examined the involvement of microtubules in apical to basolateral and basolateral to apical transcytosis, respectively. While depolymerization of microtubules with nocodozole had no effect on apical to basolateral transcytosis via FcR, basolateral to apical transcytosis of dimeric IgA via pIg-R was almost completely blocked. Inhibition due to nocodozole was selective for basolateral to apical transcytosis, since neither endocytosis nor receptor recycling was significantly affected at either plasma membrane domain. As shown by confocal microscopy, the block in transcytosis was due to the inability of MDCK cells to translocate IgA-containing vesicles from the basolateral to the apical cytoplasm in the absence of an intact microtubule network. The nocodazole sensitive step could be partially by-passed, however, by allowing cells to internalize IgA at 17 degrees C prior to nocodazole treatment. Although incubation at 17 degrees C blocked release of IgA into the apical medium, it did not prevent translocation of IgA-containing vesicles to the apical cytoplasm. Thus, receptor-mediated transcytosis in opposite directions exhibits distinct requirements for microtubules, a feature which reflects the spatial organization of MDCK cells.