Serosal application of carbachol to T84 cell monolayers mounted in an Ussing chamber caused an immediate increase in short circuit current (Isc) that peaked within 5 min and declined rapidly thereafter, although a small increase in Isc persisted for approximately 30 min. The increase in Isc was detectable with 1 microM carbachol; half-maximal with 10 microM carbachol; and maximal with 100 microM carbachol. Unidirectional Na+ and Cl- flux measurements indicated that the increase in Isc was due to net Cl- secretion. Carbachol did not alter cellular cAMP, but caused a transient increase in free cytosolic Ca2+ ([Ca2+]i) from 117 +/- 7 nM to 160 +/- 15 nM. The carbachol-induced increase in Isc was potentiated by either prostaglandin E1 (PGE1) or vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP), agents that act by increasing cAMP. Measurements of cAMP and [Ca2+]i indicated that the potentiated response was not due to changes in these second messengers. Studies of the effects of these agents on ion transport pathways indicated that carbachol, PGE1, or VIP each increased basolateral K+ efflux by activating two different K+ transport pathways on the basolateral membrane. The pathway activated by carbachol was not sensitive to barium, while that activated by PGE1 or VIP was; furthermore, their action on K+ efflux are additive. Our study indicates that carbachol causes Cl- secretion, and that this action may result from its ability to increase [Ca2+]i and basolateral K+ efflux. Carbachol's effect on Cl- secretion is greatly augmented in the presence of VIP or PGE1, which open a cAMP-sensitive Cl- channel on the apical membrane, accounting for a potentiated response.