Isolated segments of hamster small intestine were perfused with oxygenated salt-fluorocarbon emulsions with or without 10-25 mM glucose, alanine or leucine. Resistances of intercellular occluding junctions and of lateral spaces and the distributed capacitance of epithelial plasma membranes were estimated from steady-state transepithelial impedances at frequencies from 0.01-10 kHz. The segments were then fixed in situ with isorheic 2.5% glutaraldehyde while continuing to measure impedance. This method of fixation increased the resistance of lateral spaces but had little effect on the resistance of occluding junctions or on membrane capacitance. The large decreases of impedance induced by glucose or amino acids were preserved in fixed tissue and could therefore be correlated with changes in structure. The observed changes of impedance were interpreted as decreased resistance of occluding junctions and lateral spaces together with increased exposed surface of lateral membranes (capacitance). Glucose, alanine or leucine induced expansion of lateral intercellular spaces as seen by light and electron microscopy. Large dilatations within absorptive cell occluding junctions were revealed by electron microscopy. Freeze-fracture analysis revealed that these dilatations consisted of expansions of compartments bounded by strands/grooves. These solute-induced structural alterations were also associated with condensation of microfilaments in the zone of the perijunctional actomyosin ring, typical of enhanced ring tension. Similar anatomical changes were found in epithelia fixed in situ at 38 degrees C during luminal perfusion with glucose in blood-circulated intestinal segments of anesthetized animals. These structural changes support the hypothesis that Na-coupled solute transport triggers contraction of perijunctional actomyosin, thereby increasing junctional permeability and enhancing absorption of nutrients by solvent drag as described in the two accompanying papers.