The filtrate formed by renal glomerular capillaries must pass through a layer of endothelial cells, the glomerular basement membrane (GBM), and a layer of epithelial cells, arranged in series. To elucidate the relative resistances of the GBM and cell layers to movement of uncharged macromolecules, we measured the diffusional permeabilities of intact and cell-free capillaries to narrow fractions of Ficoll with Stokes-Einstein radii ranging from 3.0 to 6.2 nm. Glomeruli were isolated from rat kidneys, and diffusion of fluorescein-labeled Ficoll across the walls of single capillary loops was monitored with a confocal microscopy technique. In half of the experiments the glomeruli were treated first to remove the cells, leaving skeletons that retained the general shape of the glomerulus and consisted almost entirely of GBM. The diffusional permeability of cell-free capillaries to Ficoll was approximately 10 to 20 times that of intact capillaries, depending on molecular size. Taking into account the blockage of much of the GBM surface by cells, the contribution of the GBM to the diffusional resistance of the intact barrier was calculated to be 13% to 26% of the total, increasing with molecular size. Thus, the GBM contribution, although smaller than that of the cells, was not negligible. The structure that is most likely to be responsible for the cellular part of the diffusional resistance is the slit diaphragm, which spans the filtration slit between epithelial foot processes. A novel hydrodynamic model was developed to relate the diffusional resistance of the slit diaphragm to its structure, which was idealized as a single layer of cylindrical fibers in a ladder-like arrangement.