Fetal growth is dependent on both the quantity and relative composition of amino acids delivered to the fetal circulation, and impaired placental amino acid supply is associated with restricted fetal growth. Amino acid exchangers can alter the composition, but not the quantity, of amino acids in the intra- and extracellular amino acid pools. In the placenta, exchangers may be important determinants of the amino acid composition in the fetal circulation. This study investigates the substrate specificity of exchange between the placenta and the feto-placental circulation. Maternal-fetal transfer of radiolabelled amino acids and creatinine were measured in the isolated perfused human placental cotyledon. Transfer of L-[14C] serine or L-[14C]leucine, and [3H]glycine, were measured in the absence of amino acids in the fetal circulation (transfer by non-exchange mechanisms) and following 10-20 μmol boluses of unlabelled amino acids into the fetal circulation to provide substrates for exchange (transfer by exchange and non-exchange mechanisms). The ability of fetal arterial boluses of L-alanine and L-leucine to stimulate release of amino acids from the placenta was also determined using HPLC in order to demonstrate the overall pattern of amino acid release. Experiments with radiolabelled amino acids demonstrated increased maternal-fetal transfer of L-serine and L-leucine, but not glycine, following boluses of specific amino acids into the fetal circulation. L-[14C]Leucine, but not L-[14C]serine or [3H]glycine, was transferred from the maternal to the fetal circulation by non-exchange mechanisms also (P <0.01). HPLC analysis demonstrated that fetal amino acid boluses stimulated increased transport of a range of different amino acids by 4-7 μmol l-1 (P <0.05). Amino acid exchange provides a mechanism to supply the fetus with amino acids that it requires for fetal growth. This study demonstrates that these transporters have the capacity to exchange micromolar amounts of specific amino acids, and suggests that they play an important role in regulating fetal plasma amino acid composition. © 2007 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2007 The Physiological Society.