We have used immunohistochemistry to define the cellular distribution of GH receptors in the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) and its derivatives. Immunohistochemistry was performed in the adult rat GIT with a panel of characterized monoclonal antibodies to the GH receptor. The most intense and heterogeneous immunoreactivity was observed in epithelial cell subpopulations of GIT mucosa. Mesenchymal elements of the GIT were homogenously and moderately immunoreactive. Intense immunoreactivity was observed in the ductal epithelium of the sublingual gland, scattered basal epidermal cells of the esophageal mucosa, zymogen cells of the gastric glands, scattered surface epithelial cells of the stomach, and scattered peripheral pancreatic acinar groups. Scattered enteroendocrine cells and parietal cells, crypt and villous columnar cells of the small intestine, surface columnar cells of the cecum/colon, crypt base columnar cells of the colon, and contiguous peripheral cords of pancreatic islet cells displayed strong immunoreactivity. No immunoreactivity was detectable in the mucous and serous acini of the sublingual and submandibular gland, respectively, mucous-secreting cells of the base of the cardiac and pyloric glands, surface epithelial cells of the fundus, paneth cells, goblet cells of cecum/colon, or mucous cells at the base of the cecal crypt. Other elements of the GIT were moderately or weakly immunoreactive. In support of our localization we can detect high affinity binding (Ka = 3 x 10(9] of [125I]human GH with ovine GH as displacing ligand to crude homogenates of adult rat stomach and intestine. We conclude that discrete epithelial cell subpopulations of the GIT and its derivatives are directly responsive to GH action. GH may, therefore, act independently of or synergistically with hepatic insulin-like growth factor-I in executing its physiological and/or growth-promoting role in the GIT.