Glutamine has received considerable interest as a gut-targeted nutrient due to its proposed key role in the maintenance of intestinal structure and function. We used a preparation of isolated vascularly perfused rat small intestine to investigate whether glutamine is essential for the maintenance of intestinal function. When glutamine was available, arterial glutamine was extracted at 15 +/- 2%, and net uptake was -89 +/- 5 nmol min-1 g-1. Nitrogenous metabolites ammonia, alanine, and citrulline (41 +/- 7, 41 +/- 4, and 11 +/- 2 nmol min-1 g-1, respectively) were released into the venous perfusate, but only ammonia was also excreted into the lumen (36 +/- 3 nmol min-1 g-1). In the absence of exogenous glutamine alanine release was halved and that of citrulline and ammonia nullified. Additional inhibition of glutamine synthetase yielded the same results. In all cases variables of tissue function were fully maintained also in the absence of exogenous and/or endogenous glutamine. The inhibition of glutaminase/amidotransferase reactions, however, was accompanied by a reduction in glutamine consumption and a graded deterioration in tissue function. In conclusion, glutamine seems to be dispensable as a metabolic fuel to be fully oxidized by the mucosa. However, the inhibition of major glutamine consuming pathways was associated with impaired tissue function and viability. Therefore the role of intestinal glutamine metabolism seems to be threefold: (a) providing affluent amounts of nitrogen precursors for mucosal anabolic pathways to maintain intestinal structure and function, (b) feeding the liver with an optimal substrate mix, and (c) providing citrulline and thereby arginine for the whole organism.