Tight junctions serve as the rate-limiting barrier to passive movement of hydrophilic solutes across intestinal epithelia. After activation of Na+-glucose cotransport, the permeability of intestinal tight junctions is increased. Because previous analyses of this physiological tight junction regulation have been restricted to intact mucosae, dissection of the mechanisms underlying this process has been limited. To characterize this process, we have developed a reductionist model consisting of Caco-2 intestinal epithelial cells transfected with the intestinal Na+-glucose cotransporter, SGLT1. Monolayers of SGLT1 transfectants demonstrate physiological Na+-glucose cotransport. Activation of SGLT1 results in a 22 +/- 5% fall in transepithelial resistance (TER) (P < 0.001). Similarly, inactivation of SGLT1 by addition of phloridzin increases TER by 24 +/- 2% (P < 0.001). The increased tight junction permeability is size selective, with increased flux of small nutrient-sized molecules, e.g., mannitol, but not of larger molecules, e.g., inulin. SGLT1-dependent increases in tight junction permeability are inhibited by myosin light-chain kinase inhibitors (20 microM ML-7 or 40 microM ML-9), suggesting that myosin regulatory light-chain (MLC) phosphorylation is involved in tight junction regulation. Analysis of MLC phosphorylation showed a 2.08-fold increase after activation of SGLT1 (P < 0.01), which was inhibited by ML-9 (P < 0.01). Thus monolayers incubated with glucose and myosin light-chain kinase inhibitors are comparable to monolayers incubated with phloridzin. ML-9 also inhibits SGLT1-mediated tight junction regulation in small intestinal mucosa (P < 0.01). These data demonstrate that epithelial cells are the mediators of physiological tight junction regulation subsequent to SGLT1 activation. The intimate relationship between tight junction regulation and MLC phosphorylation suggests that a critical step in regulation of epithelial tight junction permeability may be myosin ATPase-mediated contraction of the perijunctional actomyosin ring and subsequent physical tension on the tight junction.