The influence of hydrocortisone on the differentiation and proliferation of human fetal small intestine was studied. Fetal intestine (12- to 14-week gestation) was cultured during 5 days at 37 degrees C in serum-free Leibovitz L-15 medium alone or supplemented with hydrocortisone (12.5, 25, and 50 ng/ml). The addition of different concentrations of hormone did not affect the morphology of the intestinal explants. Brush border membrane hydrolytic activities, namely, sucrase, lactase, glucoamylase, trehalase, and alkaline phosphatase activities, were assayed in the intestinal tissue. A specific increase of lactase and alkaline phosphatase activities was induced by the addition of 25 and 50 ng hydrocortisone/ml culture medium. The DNA synthesis evaluated by the incorporation of [3H]thymidine was increased by the addition of 50 ng hydrocortisone/ml. The sites of incorporation into the different layers of the intestinal wall were studied by radioautography. The incorporation of the radioactive precursor occurred mainly in the epithelium and to a lesser degree in the mesenchyme and muscular layers. Labeled epithelial nuclei were located in the intervillous areas and developing crypts but not on the villi. The addition of hydrocortisone induced a significant increase of the labeling index of the epithelial cells. The present work provided for the first time some basic data on the influence of hydrocortisone on brush border hydrolytic activities and on epithelial cell proliferation of human fetal small intestine.