Arginine is a multifaceted amino acid that is critical to the normal physiology of the gastrointestinal tract. Oral arginine administration has been shown to improve mucosal recovery following intestinal injury. The present study investigated the influence of extracellular arginine concentrations on epithelial cell barrier regulation and nutrition uptake by porcine small intestinal epithelial cell line (IPEC-J2). The results show that reducing arginine concentration from 0·7 to 0·2 mm did not affect the transepithelial electrical resistance value, tight-junction proteins (claudin-1, occludin, E-cadherin), phosphorylated extracellular signal-regulated protein kinases (p-ERK) and mucin-1 expression. Furthermore, reducing arginine concentration stimulated greater expression of cationic amino acid transporter (CAT1), excitatory amino acid transporter (EAAT3) and alanine/serine/cysteine transporter (ASCT1) mRNA by IPEC-J2 cells, which was verified by elevated efficiency of amino acid uptake. Glucose consumption by IPEC-J2 cells treated with 0·2 mm-arginine remained at the same physiological level to guarantee energy supply and to maintain the cell barrier. This experiment implied that reducing arginine concentration is feasible in IPEC-J2 cells guaranteed by nutrient uptake and cell barrier function.