The immunopathologic, structural, and functional changes within rectal mucosa of known celiac sprue subjects were quantitated during local challenge with a peptic-tryptic digest of gluten. In the celiac sprue patients challenged with 2 g of digest, major effects occurred in lamina propria, submucosa, and local microvasculature. The lamina propria swelling was biphasic, starting 1-2 h after challenge with widespread extravascular deposition of fibrinogen, indicative of increased microvascular permeability, receding by 24 h postchallenge. A rapid fall in mast cells together with granule discharge suggested their involvement in this response. The late-phase swelling (48-72 h) was preceded by a rapid influx of neutrophils and basophils, the latter showing evidence of degranulation beyond 72 h. Reestablishment of vessel lumina, a rise in mast cells, and loss of neutrophils indicated tapering of the inflammatory cellular cascade by 96 h. Lymphocytes, first seen to enter the lamina by 2 h postchallenge, increased progressively, thereby resulting in substantial infiltration between 36 and 96 h. A marked rise in epithelial lymphocytes, maximal at 6-8 h, waned by 24 h. Volumes of surface and crypt epithelium remained constant throughout. In another challenge series with 4 g of gluten digest, electrical potential difference across rectal mucosa decreased significantly 12 h postchallenge, but the associated decreases in net sodium and chloride absorptive fluxes were insignificant. It is concluded that rectal mucosa is sensitized to gluten in celiac sprue disease and thus offers a promising and convenient in vivo substrate for investigative and diagnostic purposes.