The effects of the secretagogues forskolin and carbachol on protein uptake in isolated ileum of rats were studied. The mucosal-to-serosal transport of horseradish peroxidase (HRP, mol mass 40 kDa) was measured in Ussing chambers, and afterwards tissues were processed for electron microscopy. In the absence of secretagogues, the flux of enzymatically active HRP was 5 pmol.cm-2.h-1 at a mucosal concentration of 10 microM. Electron micrographs showed vesicles filled with active HRP in enterocytes but no HRP activity in intercellular spaces. Forskolin decreased HRP activity in the cells. Carbachol increased the amount of HRP-filled vesicles in enterocytes and induced HRP filling in some intercellular spaces and tight junctions in the upper parts of the villi. The transepithelial flux of intact HRP increased more than 2.5-fold. This effect was suppressed by atropine. We conclude that cholinergic activation can increase the uptake of intact protein via endocytosis and the transepithelial passage by the induction of a diffusional paracellular pathway. We speculate that the increased transport of intact protein through the intestinal barrier may influence immunologic sensitization to food allergens.