BACKGROUND:Dietary fibre influences the turnover and differentiation of the colonic epithelium, but its effects on barrier function are unknown. AIMS:To determine whether altering the type and amount of fibre in the diet affects paracellular permeability of intestinal epithelium, and to identify the mechanisms of action. METHODS:Rats were fed isoenergetic low fibre diets with or without supplements of wheat bran (10%) or methylcellulose (10%), for four weeks. Paracellular permeability was determined by measurement of conductance and 51Cr-EDTA flux across tissue mounted in Ussing chambers. Faecal short chain fatty acid (SCFA) concentrations were assessed by gas chromatography, epithelial kinetics stathmokinetically, and mucosal brush border hydrolase activities spectrophotometrically. RESULTS:Body weight was similar across the dietary groups. Conductance and 51Cr-EDTA flux were approximately 25% higher in animals fed no fibre, compared with those fed wheat bran or methylcellulose in the distal colon, but not in the caecum or jejunum. Histologically, there was no evidence of epithelial injury or erosion associated with any diet. The fibres exerted different spectra of effects on luminal SCFA concentrations and pH, and on mucosal indexes, but both bulked the faeces, were trophic to the epithelium, and stimulated expression of a marker of epithelial differentiation. CONCLUSIONS:Both a fermentable and a non-fermentable fibre reduce paracellular permeability specifically in the distal colon, possibly by promoting epithelial cell differentiation. The mechanisms by which the two fibres exert their effects are likely to be different.