Newly weaned piglets can be orally immunised against F4+ enterotoxigenic Esherichia coli (ETEC) infection with F4 fimbriae. However, to efficiently develop a vaccine against ETEC induced postweaning diarrhoea, knowledge of the stability of the F4 fimbriae to different pH and gastric digestion is needed. The gastrointestinal pH in suckling and recently weaned piglets was measured and the stability of F4 fimbriae to different pH and to pepsin was assessed in vitro. In the stomach the lowest pH was found in the fundus gland region. Gastric pH values below 2.5 were not found in suckling piglets or at the day of weaning, in contrast to piglets 1 and 2 weeks postweaning. Along the first half of the small intestine and in the caecum, a negative correlation was found between pH and age. The F4 fimbriae were stable to pH 1.5 and 2 for 2 h, whereas longer incubation periods resulted in conversion of the multimeric forms into monomers. The F4 fimbriae were partially degraded by incubation for 15-30 min in simulated gastric fluid at pH 1.5 and 2, and completely digested from 3 It onwards. At pH 3, the fimbriae maintained their antigenicity for at least 4 h. The results demonstrate that gastric digestion will only have a limited impact on oral immunisation since liquid passes through the stomach relatively quickly (50% within 2h). However, we previously demonstrated that the transit times are prolonged shortly after weaning. Shortly after weaning it could be necessary to protect the F4 fimbriae against gastric digestion to obtain efficient oral immunisation of the piglets. (C) 2003 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.