The purpose of this study was to characterize the permeability characteristics of an in vitro endothelial cell monolayer system and relate this information to available in vivo data. We cultured bovine fetal aortic endothelial cells on fibronectin-coated polycarbonate filters and confirmed that our system was similar to others in the literature with regard to morphological appearance, transendothelial electrical resistance, and the permeability coefficient for albumin. We then compared our system with in vivo endothelium by studying the movement of neutral and negatively charged radiolabeled dextran tracers across the monolayer and by using electron microscopy to follow the pathways taken by native ferritin. There were a number of differences. The permeability of our monolayer was 10-100 times greater than seen in intact endothelium, there was no evidence of "restricted" diffusion or charge selectivity, and ferritin was able to move freely into the subendothelial space. The reason for these differences appeared to be small (0.5-2.0 micron) gaps between 5 and 10% of the endothelial cells. Although the current use of cultured endothelial cells on porous supports may provide useful information about the interaction of macromolecules with the endothelium, there appear to be differences in the transendothelial permeability characteristics of these models and in vivo blood vessels.