Conflicting data have been published regarding the effects of phenobarbital treatment on bilirubin UDP-glucuronyltransferase activity in native liver microsomes. Recent evidence suggests that the bilirubin UDP-glycosyltransferase system faces the interior of microsomal vesicles, and that expression of its activities in sealed microsomes may be rate-limited by transport of UDP sugars across the membrane. These observations raise the possibility that the reported variability in the effects of phenobarbital may reflect differences in integrity of the membrane in microsomal preparations. We examined the effect of phenobarbital on bilirubin UDP-glucosyltransferase and the UDP-glucuronyltransferase activities towards bilirubin, 4-nitrophenol, and 1-naphthol using native rat liver microsomes with verified vesicle integrity. Phenobarbital-induced microsomes in which the membrane permeability barrier was eliminated by pretreatment with detergent displayed markedly higher UDP-glycosyltransferase activities towards all tested substrates compared with activities in similarly disrupted microsomes from untreated rats. In contrast, none of the transferase activities tested were significantly enhanced by phenobarbital treatment when the enzymic activities were assayed in sealed microsomes. Addition to the enzyme assay mixture of UDPGlcNAc, a presumed physiological activator of the UDP-glucuronyltransferases, failed to expose the enhanced UDP-glucuronyltransferase concentration in phenobarbital-induced sealed microsomes. Our findings are consistent with the idea that transport of UDP sugar across the membrane may be rate-limiting for expression of UDP-glycosyltransferase activities in sealed microsomes. Quantitative assessment of membrane integrity is an essential prerequisite in experiments designed to study the regulation of the microsomal UDP-glycosyltransferase system.