The physiological function of microsomal beta-glucuronidase is unclear. Substrates may be either glucuronides produced in the lumen of endoplasmic reticulum (ER) or those taken up by hepatocytes. In the latter case, efficient inward transport of glucuronides at the plasma membrane and the ER membrane would be required. Therefore, the potential role of beta-glucuronidase in ER was investigated. Isolated mouse hepatocytes and mouse and rat liver microsomal vesicles were used in the experiments. Selective permeabilization of the plasma membrane of isolated hepatocytes with saponin or digitonin resulted in an almost 4-fold elevation in the rate of beta-nitrophenol glucuronide hydrolysis, while the permeabilization of plasma membrane plus ER membrane by Triton X-100 caused a further 2-fold elevation. In microsomal vesicles, the p-nitrophenol glucuronide or phenolphthalein glucuronide beta-glucuronidase activity showed about 50% latency as revealed by alamethicin or Triton X-100 treatment. A light-scattering study indicated that the microsomes are relatively impermeable to both glucuronides and to glucuronate. On the basis of our results, the role of liver microsomal beta-glucuronidase in the deconjugation of glucuronides taken up by the liver seems unlikely. Hydrolysis of the glucuronides produced in the ER lumen may play a role in substrate supply for ascorbate synthesis or in "proofreading" of glucuronidation.