The effects of norcholate (a C23 bile acid that differs from cholate in having a side chain containing four rather than five carbon atoms) on bile flow and biliary lipid secretion were compared with those of cholate, using the anesthetized rat with a bile fistula. Norcholate and cholate were infused intravenously over the range of 0.6-6.0 mumol X min-1 X kg-1. Both bile acids were quantitatively secreted into bile; norcholate was secreted predominantly in unconjugated form in contrast to cholate, which was secreted predominantly as its taurine or glycine conjugates. The increase in bile flow per unit increase in bile acid secretion induced by norcholate infusion [17 +/- 3.2 (SD) microliters/mumol, n = 8] was much greater than that induced by cholate infusion (8.6 +/- 0.9 microliters/mumol, n = 9) (P less than 0.001). Both bile acids induced phospholipid and cholesterol secretion. For an increase in bile acid secretion (above control values) of 1 mumol X min-1 X kg-1, the increases in phospholipid secretion [0.052 +/- 0.024 (SD) mumol X min-1 X kg-1, n = 9] and cholesterol secretion (0.0071 +/- 0.0033 mumol X min-1 X kg-1, n = 9) induced by norcholate infusion were much less than those induced by cholate infusion (0.197 +/- 0.05 mumol X min-1 X kg-1, n = 9, and 0.024 +/- 0.011 mumol X min-1 X kg-1, n = 9, respectively; P less than 0.001 for both phospholipid and cholesterol). The strikingly different effects of norcholate on bile flow and biliary lipid secretion were attributed mainly to its possessing a considerably higher critical micellar concentration than cholate.