Our objective was to study the characteristics of transfer and biotransformation of nicotine in the human term placenta. Nicotine transfer was studied by dually perfusing an isolated cotyledon of the human placenta in vitro. Nicotine metabolism to cotinine was investigated in intact tissue during perfusion and in placental microsomal fractions. Following the addition of nicotine (40 ng/ml) to the maternal side of the placenta, distribution into placental tissue (0.43 +/- 0.13 ng/ml/min) was three times higher than transfer to the fetal side of the placenta (0.15 +/- 0.01 ng/ml/min). The steady-state maternal-to-fetal transfer of nicotine was approximately 90% that of antipyrine (a marker of flow-dependent transfer). There was no evidence of nicotine metabolism to cotinine by intact placental tissue or in microsomal fractions. The observation that nicotine readily crosses the human placenta with no evidence of metabolism suggests that nicotine has the potential to cause adverse affects on the developing fetus.