Hyaluronan (HA) is a glycosaminoglycan, the water-binding properties of which are suggested to be pivotal for an optimal hydration of tissues. The lamina propria of the intestinal villi is characterized by a high concentration of HA. Increased amounts of HA are observed in the intestinal lumen in patients with Crohn's disease. We have evaluated whether epithelial denudation as such is sufficient to increase the concentration of HA in the lumen of the small intestine. Epithelial damage was accomplished by reversible ischemia-reperfusion injury to the rat ileum and the concentration of HA was determined in luminal perfusate. The perfusate concentration of HA was increased from 26 +/- 8 micrograms/l before ischemia, to 68 +/- 13 and 41 +/- 12 micrograms/l 0-30 and 30-60 min after a 60-min period of subtotal ischemia without venous stasis (p < 0.05). In sham-operated animals, in contrast, the perfusate concentration of HA was virtually unchanged (31 +/- 18, 13 +/- 3 and 10 +/- 1 microgram/l, respectively). Specific staining for HA on sections revealed loss of HA from the villus tips after ischemia. The results show that epithelial denudation results in loss of HA from the villus interstitium to the intestinal lumen.