Vectorial transport in the thyroid epithelium requires an efficient barrier against passive paracellular flux, a role which is principally performed by the tight junction (zonula occludens). There is increasing evidence that tight junction integrity is determined by integral and peripheral membrane proteins which interact with the cell cytoskeleton. Although the contribution of the actin cytoskeleton to tight junction physiology has been intensively studied, less is known about possible interactions with microtubules. In the present study we used electrophysiological and immunohistochemical approaches to investigate the contribution of microtubules to the paracellular barrier in cultured thyroid cell monolayers which displayed a high transepithelial electrical resistance (6000-9000 ohm.cm2). Colchicine (1 microM) caused a progressive fall in electrical resistance to < 10% of baseline after 6 h and depolarization of the transepithelial electrical potential difference consistent with a significant increase in paracellular permeability. The effect of colchicine on TER was not affected by agents which inhibit the major apical conductances of thyroid cells but was reversed upon removal of the drug. Immunofluorescent staining for tubulin combined with confocal laser scanning microscopy demonstrated that thyroid cells possessed a dense microtubule network extending throughout the cytoplasm which was destroyed by colchicine. Colchicine also produced changes in the localization of the tight junction-associated protein, ZO-1: its normally continuous junctional distribution was disrupted by striking discontinuities and the appearance of many fine strands which extended into the cytoplasm. A similar disruption in E-cadherin staining was also observed, but colchicine did not affect the distribution of vinculin associated with adherens junctions nor the integrity of the perijunctional actin ring. We conclude that microtubules are necessary for the functional and structural integrity of tight junctions in this electrically tight, transporting epithelium.