Giardia lamblia trophozoites colonize the human small intestine, where they are exposed to high concentrations of conjugated bile acids. Previous work has shown that bile acids enhance trophozoite survival, multiplication, and differentiation into the cyst stage. Therefore, experiments were performed to test whether carrier-mediated uptake of conjugated bile acids is present in this primitive parasite. Uptake of both cholyltaurine (C-tau) and cholylglycine (C-gly) was increased manyfold after culturing trophozoites in medium lacking bile acids. Absence of uptake at 4 degrees C and inhibition by other conjugated bile acids provided additional evidence for carrier-mediated uptake. Uptake of C-tau was greater than that of C-gly under all experimental conditions and appeared to be mediated by a different carrier. The major evidence for different carriers is that C-tau uptake was Na(+)-dependent, while C-gly uptake was not. In addition, C-tau uptake was more strongly inhibited by DTNB and several organic anions than C-gly uptake. Radiolabeled C-tau and C-gly were each released rapidly from trophozoites at 37 degrees C but not at 4 degrees C, suggesting that release of conjugated bile acids was also carrier-mediated. These findings are consistent with the notion that multiple transporters for conjugated bile acids are present in a lower eukaryote. We speculate that intracellular bile acids may facilitate lipid trafficking and membrane biosynthesis.