Dynamic magnetic resonance imaging was used to monitor solute diffusion through aggregates of Chinese hamster ovary cells growing on macroporous carriers in a fixed-bed bioreactor. Diffusion-weighted (1)H magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and scanning electron microscopy demonstrated that cell growth in the bioreactor was heterogeneous, with the highest cell densities being found at the periphery of the carriers. T(1)-weighted magnetic resonance imaging measurements of the inflow of a commonly used magnetic resonance contrast agent, gadolinium-diethylenetriaminopentaacetic acid (Gd-DTPA), showed that migration of the agent through the peripheral cell masses could be explained by diffusion. However, appearance of the contrast agent in the center of the carriers was too fast to be explained by simple diffusion and indicated that these regions were perfused by convective flow. The average diffusivity of Gd-DTPA through the cell mass was found to be (2.4 +/- 0.2) x 10(-10) m(2) sec(-) (mean +/- SEM). This technique will be useful in the characterization and development of high-cell-density bioreactor systems, in which solute transport plays a critical role in cell growth and physiology.