The intestinal mucosa is characterized by cell proliferation, commitment, differentiation, digestion and absorption. These processes occur at specified locations along the crypt to villus axis. A technique is reported for the isolation of cells along this axis which allows the study of any one of these processes in an enriched population of cells. As an example, the uptake of transferrin-bound iron by enterocytes was studied. Rats were fed diets normal, high (30% carbonyl iron) or low in iron for 12 days. Cells from either the duodenum or ileum were isolated by incubating in a Ca(2+)-, Mg2+-free, cation chelating solution for varying periods. The incorporation of thymidine into DNA was measured in these cells as a marker of the crypt region, while alkaline phosphatase and sucrase activities marked mature enterocytes. The in vivo uptake of transferrin-bound 59Fe was measured in cells isolated either 2 or 4 h after intravenous injection. This procedure resulted in the isolation of 10 fractions of viable cells. Earlier fractions were enriched at least 10-fold in villus cells and the last fractions in crypt cells. Cells in intermediate fractions were at various stages of development. Uptake of transferrin-bound iron into enterocytes was highest with feeding an iron-loaded diet compared with control or iron-deficient diets. However, with all diets uptake was highest in crypt cells and this fell at the crypt-villus junction to be only 25%, as high at the villus tip as the crypt. A technique for the reproducible isolation of viable enterocytes along a crypt-villus axis is described. Transferrin receptor activity changes with maturation of the enterocyte.