Sertoli cells from immature rats (18 days old) were cultured on Millipore filters impregnated with reconstituted basement membrane in bicameral chambers. Three types of cultures were obtained: 1) confluent monolayer cultures that formed a permeability barrier (impermeable), 2) confluent monolayer cultures that did not form a permeability barrier (permeable), and 3) subconfluent cultures (permeable). The relationships among fluid equilibrium, electrical resistance, and [3H]inulin transport between the apical and basal reservoirs of the chambers were examined. An impermeable confluent monolayer is defined when the cells of the Sertoli cell epithelial sheet are able to prevent hydrodynamic equilibration of fluid levels between the apical and basal reservoirs of a bicameral chamber. That is, a permeability barrier is present between the two sides of the chamber when fluid levels (volumes) do not change. In the impermeable confluent Sertoli cell monolayers, 7.5 +/- 0.6% of added [3H]inulin diffused across the monolayer during a 6-h collection period versus 13.7 +/- 0.5% in permeable cultures. Conversely, the electrical resistance was higher in the impermeable monolayers (41-71 ohm.cm2) than in the permeable layers (less than 33 ohm.cm2). A reciprocal linear relationship (Y = -4.68(X) + 91.50, r = 0.808) exists between inulin flux and electrical resistance, and this relationship is a function of cell density. Transferrin (Tf) was one of a few proteins detected in the basal medium of bicameral chambers, whereas most de novo synthesized proteins were secreted into the apical reservoir of the chamber. No significant differences in the total amount of Tf secreted by impermeable or permeable monolayers of Sertoli cells were observed. However, the Sertoli cell secretion ratios (apical/basal) of Tf during a 15-20-h collection period were 2.03 and 1.57 for impermeable monolayers plated at 2.4 x 10(6) and 3.6 x 10(6) cells/well, respectively, but less than 1.0 in permeable layers of cells. When fewer than 2 x 10(6) Sertoli cells were plated, the apical/basal polarity of Tf secretion declined to below 1 in a 24-h culture period, even though those chambers contained impermeable monolayers (recognized by the lack of hydrodynamic equilibrium). These results indicate that polarized secretion by Sertoli cells is dependent on (1) plating density and (2) formation of an impermeable epithelial sheet.