The parasympathetic control of goblet cell secretion and the membrane events accompanying accelerated mucus release were studied in large intestinal mucosal biopsies maintained in an organ culture system. The secretory response of individual goblet cells to 10(-6) M acetylcholine chloride with 3 x 10(-3) M eserine sulfate (a cholinesterase inhibitor) was assessed by light microscopy and autoradiography, by scanning and transmission electron microscopy, and by freeze-fracture. Goblet cells on the mucosal surface are unaffected by acetylcholine. In crypt goblet cells acetylcholine-eserine induces rapid fusion of apical mucous granule membranes with the luminal plasma membrane (detectable by 2 min), followed by sequential, tandem fission of the pentalaminar, fused areas of adjacent mucous granule membranes. These events first involve the most central apical mucous granules, are then propagated to include peripheral granules, and finally spread toward the most basal granules. By 60 min, most crypt cells are nearly depleted. The apical membrane, although greatly amplified by these events, remains intact, and intracellular mucous granules do not coalesce with each other. During rapid secretion membrane-limited tags of cytoplasm are observed attached to the cavitated apical cell surface. These long, thin extensions of redundant apical membrane are rapidly lost, apparently by being shed into the crypt lumen.

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