Increased levels of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) have been found in, for example, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. To investigate a possible contribution of TNF-alpha to the pathogenesis of diarrhea in these diseases, ion transport of human distal colon was studied in the Ussing chamber in vitro. Serosal addition of TNF-alpha increased short-circuit current (Isc) of partially stripped tissues in a dose-dependent manner. Maximum Isc increase of 1.8 +/- 0.2 mumol.h-1.cm-2 was reached after 60 +/- 9 min at 200 ng/ml TNF-alpha. Bidirectional tracer flux measurements revealed that TNF-alpha induced an increase in 36 Cl serosal-to-mucosal flux, a decrease in 36Cl- mucosal-to-serosal flux, and a slight increase in K+ secretion indicated by an increased secretory 86Rb net flux. In the highly differentiated colonic epithelial cell line HT-29/B6, TNF-alpha had no effect on Isc, suggesting a mediation step located in the subepithelium. This supposition was supported by measurements on totally stripped human tissues, since removal of subepithelial layers by total stripping reduced the TNF-alpha effect by 40%. Experiments with tetrodotoxin (10(-6)M) indicated that the TNF-alpha effect was not mediated by the enteric nervous system. The specific 5-lipoxygenase blocker ICI-230487 (5 x 10(-8)M) also had no effect on TNF-alpha action. In contrast, inhibition of cyclooxygenase by indomethacin (10(-6)M inhibited the effect of TNF-alpha. Radioimmunoassay of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) in the serosal bathing solution revealed an increase in PGE2 production/release after addition of TNF-alpha, which paralleled the Isc response. We conclude that TNF-alpha changed Cl- and K+ transport toward secretion in human colon. This effect was mediated by PGE2 produced by subepithelial cells. Thus TNF-alpha could be a mediator of diarrhea during intestinal inflammation, e.g., in IBD and HIV infection.