Abstract Introduction Placental glutamine synthesis has been demonstrated in animals and is thought to increase the availability of this metabolically important amino acid to the fetus. Glutamine is of fundamental importance for cellular replication, cellular function and inter-organ nitrogen transfer. The objective of this study was to investigate the role of glutamate/glutamine metabolism by the isolated perfused human placenta in the provision of glutamine to the fetus. Methods Glutamate metabolism was investigated in the isolated dually perfused human placental cotyledon. U–13C-glutamate was used to investigate the movement of carbon and 15N-leucine to study movement of amino-nitrogen. Labelled amino acids were perfused via maternal or fetal arteries at defined flow rates. The enrichment and concentration of amino acids in the maternal and fetal veins were measured following 5 h of perfusion. Results Glutamate taken up from the maternal and fetal circulations was primarily converted into glutamine the majority of which was released into the maternal circulation. The glutamine transporter SNAT5 was localised to the maternal-facing membrane of the syncytiotrophoblast. Enrichment of 13C or 15N glutamine in placental tissue was lower than in either the maternal or fetal circulation, suggesting metabolic compartmentalisation within the syncytiotrophoblast. Discussion Placental glutamine synthesis may help ensure the placenta's ability to supply this amino acid to the fetus does not become limiting to fetal growth. Glutamine synthesis may also influence placental transport of other amino acids, metabolism, nitrogen flux and cellular regulation. Conclusions Placental glutamine synthesis may therefore be a central mechanism in ensuring that the human fetus receives adequate nutrition and is able to maintain growth.