Tight junctions in epithelial cells have been postulated to act as barriers inhibiting lateral diffusion of lipids and proteins between the apical and basolateral plasma membrane domains. To study the fence function of the tight junction in more detail, we have fused liposomes containing the fluorescent phospholipid N-Rh-PE into the apical plasma membrane of MDCK cells. Liposome fusion was induced by low pH and mediated by the influenza virus hemagglutinin, which was expressed on the apical cell surface after viral infection. Redistribution of N-Rh-PE to the basolateral surface, monitored at 0 degree C by fluorescence microscopy, appeared to be dependent on the transbilayer orientation of the fluorescent lipids in the plasma membrane. Asymmetric liposomes containing over 85% of the N-Rh-PE in the external bilayer leaflet, as shown by a phospholipase A2 assay, were generated by octyl beta-D-glucoside dialysis. When these asymmetric liposomes were fused with the apical plasma membrane, fluorescent lipid did not move to the basolateral side. Symmetric liposomes which contained the marker in both leaflets were obtained by freeze-thawing asymmetric liposomes or by reverse-phase evaporation. Upon fusion of these with the apical membrane, redistribution to the basolateral membrane occurred immediately. Redistribution could be observed with asymmetric liposomes only when the tight junctions were opened by incubation in a Ca2+-free medium. During the normal experimental manipulations the tight junctions remained intact since a high trans-epithelial electrical resistance was maintained over the cell monolayer. We conclude that the tight junction acts as a diffusion barrier for the fluorescent phospholipid N-Rh-PE in the exoplasmic leaflet of the plasma membrane but not in the cytoplasmic leaflet.