Cholinergic secretagogues evoke mucus secretion from goblet cells in the crypts of small and large intestinal mucosa in vivo and in organ culture. It was not known whether this response reflected a direct action on epithelial cell receptors or an indirect effect involving intermediate neurons of the enteric nervous system. To resolve this, carbachol was applied to isolated intestinal epithelium maintained in vitro. Intact sheets of epithelium, measuring 10-200 mm2, were isolated from the ileum and colon of adult rats following short intravascular perfusion with 30 mM EDTA. The isolated epithelia lacked a basal lamina and cytoplasmic blebs formed on the basal cell surfaces, but cell ultrastructure was normal and intercellular junctions were intact. Autoradiography revealed that both goblet and columnar cells continued to incorporate [3H]glucosamine into nascent secretory macromolecules for at least 45 min after isolation. When exposed to 20 microM carbachol for 5 min, crypt goblet cells discharged their stored mucin granules by compound exocytosis, whereas goblet cells in portions of the epithelium derived from villi or mucosal surfaces were unresponsive. We conclude that cholinergic secretagogues act directly on crypt epithelial cells to elicit mucus secretion.