BeWo cells are a placental cell line that has been widely used as an in vitro model for the placenta. The b30 subclone of these cells can be grown on permeable membranes in bicameral chambers to form confluent cell layers, enabling rates of both nutrient uptake into the cells from the apical surface and efflux from the basolateral membrane to be determined. The aim of this study was to evaluate structural and functional properties of confluent b30 BeWo cell layers grown in bicameral chambers, focusing on the potential application for studying receptor-mediated uptake and transport of transferrin (Tf)-bound iron (Fe-Tf). While it proved extremely difficult to establish and maintain an intact BeWo cell monolayer, it was possible to grow the cells to a confluent multilayer. Iron, applied as Fe-Tf, was rapidly transported across this cell layer; 9.3 +/- 0.5% of the total dose was transported after 8 h, equivalent to 38.8 +/- 2.1 pmol.cm(-2).h(-1). Transfer of Tf across the cell layer was much more limited; 2.4 +/- 0.2% of the total dose was transported after 8 h, equivalent to 5.0 +/- 0.4 pmol.cm(-2).h(-1). Compartmental modeling of these data suggested that iron was transported across the cell layer predominantly, if not exclusively, via a transcellular route, whereas Tf taken up into the cells was predominantly recycled back to the apical compartment. The results suggest that these cells are very efficient at transporting iron and, under carefully controlled conditions, can be a valuable tool for the study of iron transport in the placenta.