Caveolae or noncoated plasmalemmal vesicles found in a variety of cells have been implicated in a number of important cellular functions including endocytosis, transcytosis, and potocytosis. Their function in transport across endothelium has been especially controversial, at least in part because there has not been any way to selectively inhibit this putative pathway. We now show that the ability of sterol binding agents such as filipin to disassemble endothelial noncoated but not coated plasmalemmal vesicles selectively inhibits caveolae-mediated intracellular and transcellular transport of select macromolecules in endothelium. Filipin significantly reduces the transcellular transport of insulin and albumin across cultured endothelial cell monolayers. Rat lung microvascular permeability to albumin in situ is significantly decreased after filipin perfusion. Conversely, paracellular transport of the small solute inulin is not inhibited in vitro or in situ. In addition, we show that caveolae mediate the scavenger endocytosis of conformationally modified albumins for delivery to endosomes and lysosomes for degradation. This intracellular transport is inhibited by filipin both in vitro and in situ. Other sterol binding agents including nystatin and digitonin also inhibit this degradative process. Conversely, the endocytosis and degradation of activated alpha 2- macroglobulin, a known ligand of the clathrin-dependent pathway, is not affected. Interestingly, filipin appears to inhibit insulin uptake by endothelium for transcytosis, a caveolae-mediated process, but not endocytosis for degradation, apparently mediated by the clathrin-coated pathway. Such selective inhibition of caveolae not only provides critical evidence for the role of caveolae in the intracellular and transcellular transport of select macromolecules in endothelium but also may be useful for distinguishing transport mediated by coated versus noncoated vesicles.