BACKGROUND: Intestinal barrier dysfunction and translocation of endotoxins are involved in the pathogenesis of alcoholic liver disease. Exposure to ethanol and its metabolite, acetaldehyde at relatively high concentrations have been shown to disrupt intestinal epithelial tight junctions in the conventional two dimensional cell culture models. The present study investigated quantitatively and qualitatively the effects of ethanol at concentrations detected in the blood after moderate ethanol consumption, of its metabolite acetaldehyde and of the combination of both compounds on intestinal barrier function in a three-dimensional cell culture model. METHODS AND FINDINGS: Caco-2 cells were grown in a basement membrane matrix (Matrigel) to induce spheroid formation and were then exposed to the compounds at the basolateral side. Morphological differentiation of the spheroids was assessed by immunocytochemistry and transmission electron microscopy. The barrier function was assessed by the flux of FITC-labeled dextran from the basal side into the spheroids' luminal compartment using confocal microscopy. Caco-2 cells grown on Matrigel assembled into fully differentiated and polarized spheroids with a central lumen, closely resembling enterocytes in vivo and provide an excellent model to study epithelial barrier functionality. Exposure to ethanol (10-40 mM) or acetaldehyde (25-200 microM) for 3 h, dose-dependently and additively increased the paracellular permeability and induced redistribution of ZO-1 and occludin without affecting cell viability or tight junction-encoding gene expression. Furthermore, ethanol and acetaldehyde induced lysine residue and microtubules hyperacetylation. CONCLUSIONS: These results indicate that ethanol at concentrations found in the blood after moderate drinking and acetaldehyde, alone and in combination, can increase the intestinal epithelial permeability. The data also point to the involvement of protein hyperacetylation in ethanol- and acetaldehyde-induced loss of tight junctions integrity.