The transmural electrical potential difference (PD) was measured in vivo across the buccal mucosa of humans and experimental animals. Mean PD was -31 +/- 2 mV in humans, -34 +/- 2 mV in dogs, -39 +/- 2 mV in rabbits, and -18 +/- 1 mV in hamsters. The mechanisms responsible for this PD were explored in Ussing chambers using dog buccal mucosa. After equilibration, mean PD was -16 +/- 2 mV, short-circuit current (Isc) was 15 +/- 1 microA/cm2, and resistance was 1,090 +/- 100 omega.cm2, the latter indicating an electrically "tight" tissue. Fluxes of [14C]mannitol, a marker of paracellular permeability, varied directly with tissue conductance. The net fluxes of 22Na and 36Cl were +0.21 +/- 0.05 and -0.04 +/- 0.02 mueq/h.cm2, respectively, but only the Na+ flux differed significantly from zero. Isc was reduced by luminal amiloride, serosal ouabain, or by reducing luminal Na+ below 20 mM. This indicated that the Isc was determined primarily by active Na+ absorption and that Na+ traverses the apical membrane at least partly through amiloride-sensitive channels and exits across the basolateral membrane through Na+-K+-ATPase activity. We conclude that buccal mucosa is capable of active electrolyte transport and that this capacity contributes to generation of the buccal PD in vivo.