The permeability response of endothelial monolayers to some "direct-action" type mediators of vasopermeability were studied in vitro. Endothelial cells, cultured to confluence on denatured collagen-coated dextran microcarriers or gelatin microcarriers, prevented staining of the microcarriers with Evans blue dye. Increases in staining, as determined by the spectrophotometric quantitation of the dye after extraction from the microcarriers with formamide, occurred after treatment of human umbilical vein endothelium with histamine (10(-5) M) or thrombin (0.1 U/ml). These increases in monolayer permeability were reversible. Neither bradykinin nor serotonin had any effect in this system. Endothelial monolayers cultured this way consistently stained with silver nitrate at the cell junction areas. Monolayer response to histamine was characterized morphologically by small openings which occurred randomly along the cell junctions; while with thrombin, the spaces, which had developed at junctions, occurred to a greater extent. Prostaglandin E1 (30 microM) and isoproterenol (10 microM), in the presence of 3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine (1 mM), partially inhibited histamine- and thrombin-mediated changes in permeability. This model responds to certain vasopermeability-altering agents in a manner similar to that of the microcirculation. These studies support the concept that the vasopermeability enhancing effect of histamine in vivo results, in part, from a direct effect on the endothelium.