Exposure for 24 h of mucus-secreting HT-29 cells to the sugar analogue GalNAc-alpha-O-benzyl results in inhibition of Galbeta1-3GalNAc:alpha2,3-sialyltransferase, reduced mucin sialylation, and inhibition of their secretion (Huet, G., I. Kim, C. de Bolos, J.M. Loguidice, O. Moreau, B. Hémon, C. Richet, P. Delannoy, F.X. Real., and P. Degand. 1995. J. Cell Sci. 108:1275-1285). To determine the effects of prolonged inhibition of sialylation, differentiated HT-29 populations were grown under permanent exposure to GalNAc-alpha-O-benzyl. This results in not only inhibition of mucus secretion, but also in a dramatic swelling of the cells and the accumulation in intracytoplasmic vesicles of brush border-associated glycoproteins like dipeptidylpeptidase-IV, the mucin-like glycoprotein MUC1, and carcinoembryonic antigen which are no longer expressed at the apical membrane. The block occurs beyond the cis-Golgi as substantiated by endoglycosidase treatment and biosynthesis analysis. In contrast, the polarized expression of the basolateral glycoprotein GP 120 is not modified. Underlying these effects we found that (a) like in mucins, NeuAcalpha2-3Gal-R is expressed in the terminal position of the oligosaccharide species associated with the apical, but not the basolateral glycoproteins of the cells, and (b) treatment with GalNAc-alpha-O-benzyl results in an impairment of their sialylation. These effects are reversible upon removal of the drug. It is suggested that alpha2-3 sialylation is involved in apical targeting of brush border membrane glycoproteins and mucus secretion in HT-29 cells.