Biotin, a vitamin essential for many metabolic reactions, is supplied to the fetus exclusively from the mother. Deficiency of biotin in pregnancy leads to impaired fetal growth and development. Alcohol taken in pregnancy likewise may cause fetal growth abnormalities. Normal biotin transport via the placenta and the effects of ethanol on this transport apparently have not been studied. Our aims were to characterize these phenomena for the normal human-term placenta. Using maternal-facing placental membrane vesicles, biotin uptake was sodium- and temperature-dependent, saturable, and inhibited by structural analogs of biotin (desthiobiotin, biocytin, and biotin methyl ester), as well as by 4 and 10 hr exposure to 3 g/liter ethanol. Using the isolated perfused single cotyledon method to measure placental transport of biotin at a perfusion concentration of 1 nM, the overall rate of biotin transport was found to be only 30% that of antipyrine, a freely diffusible marker. Clearance of biotin was approximately 2 ml/hr.g placenta, which was equal to the clearance of passively transferred L-glucose; biotin clearance was similar in both maternal to fetal and fetal to maternal directions. Overall transfer of biotin from maternal to fetal compartments was not inhibited by 500-fold greater concentrations of the three analogs, did not proceed against a biotin concentration gradient, and was not inhibited by 90-240 min exposure to an initial concentration of 4 g/liter ethanol. Concentration of biotin in the fetal compartment at the end of the study was not higher than on the maternal side (after maternal to fetal infusion), but placental concentration was 2- to 3-fold greater. No significant metabolism of biotin was detected. Exposing human placental cultured trophoblast on day 3 to 24 hr of ethanol (2 g/liter) had no effect on the net uptake of biotin by these cells. These studies provide evidence that maternal-facing placental membranes take up biotin by a mediated, carrier-dependent process that is inhibited by ethanol; however, based on the perfusion studies, we conclude that the overall (maternal-fetal) rate-limiting transfer of biotin by the human placenta is most consistent with a passive process, which is not inhibited by short-term exposure to ethanol.