Although a number of causes of poor fetal growth are known, the involvement of placental transport proteins in the etiology of growth retardation is not understood. The aim of this study was to investigate the activity of the system A amino acid transporter and the Na+/H+ exchanger in vesicles isolated from the microvillous membrane of the syncytiotrophoblast of placentas of appropriate and small for gestational age babies. There were no biochemical differences between the membranes from the two groups of placentas, and there was no difference in the activity of the Na+/H+ exchanger. The initial rate of uptake of methylaminoisobutyric acid (a nonmetabolizable amino acid analogue) was 63% lower in vesicles from placentas of small for gestational age babies. Kinetic analysis of the system A transporter (utilized by methylaminoisobutyric acid) showed that the Vmax in the vesicles from placentas of small for gestational age babies (0.24 +/- 0.03 nmol/mg protein/30 s, n = 5) was significantly lower than that in vesicles from placentas of appropriate for gestational age babies (0.64 +/- 0.09 nmol/mg protein/30 s, n = 4, p < 0.001), whereas the Km was not different between the two groups. It is concluded that there is an abnormality of system A amino acid transporter function in placentas of small for gestational age babies.