Control of paracellular permeability in the colonic epithelium is fundamental to its functional competence. This study examines the relationship between physiologically relevant short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and paracellular permeability using the Caco-2 cell line model. Butyrate induced a concentration-dependent, reversible increase in transepithelial resistance (TER) that was maximal after 72 h. Butyrate (2 mM) increased TER by 299 +/- 69% (mean +/- SE; n = 5; P < 0.05; t-test) and reduced mannitol flux to 52 +/- 11% (P < 0.05) of control. The effect of butyrate was dependent on protein synthesis and gene transcription but not dependent on its oxidation or activation of adenosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate. The other SCFAs, propionate and acetate, also induced a concentration-dependent increase in TER. The effect of butyrate paralleled changes in cellular differentiation, because alkaline phosphatase activity, carcinoembryonic antigen expression, and dome formation were increased. Furthermore, other differentiating agents (dimethyl sulfoxide and retinoic acid) also increased TER. Thus SCFAs reduce paracellular permeability in the Caco-2 cell line, possibly by promotion of a more differentiated phenotype. If such an effect occurs in vivo, it may have ramifications for the biology and pathobiology of colonic mucosa.