1. Immature, male Wistar rats were given a low-zinc diet (2 mg/kg) for 22–24 d. Control groups received a similar diet supplemented with 58 mg Zn/kg either ad lib., or in amounts matched to the consumption of the Zn-deficient group. Food consumption, rate of growth and food conversion efficiency were markedly lower in the Zn-deficient group of rats compared with controls. Appetite, growth rate and food utilization improved dramatically over a subsequent 4 d period of Zn supplementation.
2. Morphological examination of samples of jejunum and ileum confirmed that Zn deficiency in the rat is accompanied by a reduction in villous dimensions and increase in villous density. After a short period of Zn supplementation, villous density and the basal width and maximum height of individual villi in the jejunum returned to normal. Similar changes occurred in the ileum but to a lesser extent.
3. Mucosal alkaline phosphatase (EC 188.8.131.52) activity was significantly lower in the small intestine of Zn-deficient rats compared with Zn-supplemented rats. Disaccharidase activities were lower in the Zn-deficient group, compared with their feed-restricted counterparts, but were similar to values for ad lib.-fed controls. Tissue alkaline phosphatase and disaccharidase activitities were consistently higher after a 4 d period of Zn supplementation, compared with non-supplemented animals, but this increase was only significant for alkaline phosphatase.
4. Although there were striking similarities in the mucosal characteristics of gnotobiotic and Zn-deficient rats, there was no indication that even severe dietary Zn depletion reduced the numbers of viable bacteria present in either the small or large intestine. Changes in intestinal structure and function resulting from variation in dietary Zn intake appear, therefore, to be unrelated to changes in the intestinal flora.