Escherichia coli heat-stable enterotoxin (STa) induces intestinal secretion by binding to enterocyte receptors and activating the guanylate cyclase-guanosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate (cGMP) system. The intermediate steps between binding of STa and secretion are poorly understood, due in part to the lack of a convenient system to study the effects of STa at the cellular level. To establish such a model, we investigated the binding of 125I-STa, STa activation of guanylate cyclase, and STa-induced increase in cGMP production in a well-characterized human colonic cell line, T84. Binding was specific, linear with cell number, and time, temperature and pH dependent, and reversible. ST may also be internalized by these cells. Addition of unlabeled STa competitively inhibited binding of 125I-STa. These parameters closely resemble those described in intact rat enterocytes and cell-free membrane preparations. STa stimulated guanylate cyclase and cGMP production in a dose-related manner. The similar dose-response relationships for binding, guanylate cyclase stimulation by STa, and cGMP production suggest that the guanylate cyclase-cGMP system is coupled to ST occupancy of specific receptors. These data, together with the fact that STa induces chloride secretion from T84 cells suggest that T84 cells are a suitable and convenient system to study the cellular mechanism of action of STa.