1. The activities of the two key enzymes involved in glutamine metabolism, glutaminase and glutamine synthetase, were measured in mucosal biopsies taken from different sites throughout the human gastrointestinal tract, from oesophagus to rectum.
2. The specific activity of glutamine synthetase was highest in the stomach (4.5 nmol glutamine formed per minute per mg of protein), but both small and large intestine and the oesophagus had little synthesizing capacity (less than 0.3 nmol of glutamine formed per minute per mg of protein).
3. Glutaminase specific activity was highest in the small intestine (53 nmol glutamate formed per minute per mg of protein by duodenal mucosa), intermediate in the large intestine and lowest in the oesophagus and stomach (less than 13 nmol of glutamate formed per minute per mg of protein).
4. The glutamine concentration in the mucosa was lower in the duodenum than in the colon (0.62 and 0.95 mmol/kg wet weight respectively), but both were much lower than the measured Km values of glutaminases obtained from these sites (3.8 and 4.0 mmol/kg wet weight respectively).
5. The concentration of glutamine in saliva, stomach juice, bile and duodenal juice suggests that very little glutamine passes into the gastrointestinal tract via these secretions.
6. The study provides the most complete information on the distribution of glutamine synthetase and glutaminase along the human gastrointestinal tract, and suggests that (i) both the small and large intestines have a high potential for glutamine metabolism, but little synthesizing capacity, thus both must derive their glutamine from other sources, and (ii) neither the stomach nor the oesophagus have a high glutaminase activity, although the stomach has substantial capacity to synthesize glutamine. The distribution of the enzymes along the gastrointestinal tract may help rationalize the use of glutamine for treating diseases that affect different parts of the gastrointestinal tract.