It has been controversial whether high water permeability in the thin descending limb of Henle (TDLH) is required for formation of a concentrated urine by the kidney. Freeze-fracture electron microscopy (FFEM) of rat TDLH has shown an exceptionally high density of intramembrane particles (IMPs), which were proposed to consist of tetramers of aquaporin-1 (AQP1) water channels. In this study, transepithelial osmotic water permeability (Pf) was measured in isolated perfused segments (0.5-1 mm) of TDLH in wild-type (+/+), AQP1 heterozygous (+/-), and AQP1 null (-/-) mice. Pf was measured at 37 degrees C using a 100 mM bath-to-lumen osmotic gradient of raffinose, and fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC)-dextran as the luminal volume marker. Pf was (in cm/s): 0.26 +/- 0.02 ([+/+]; SE, n = 9 tubules), 0.21 +/- 0.01 ([+/-]; n = 12), and 0.031 +/- 0.007 ([-/-]; n = 6) (P < 0.02, [+/+] vs. [+/-]; P < 0.0001, [+/+] vs. [-/-]). FFEM of kidney medulla showed remarkably fewer IMPs in TDLH from (-/-) vs. (+/+) and (+/-) mice. IMP densities were (in microm-2, SD, 5-12 micrographs): 5,880 +/- 238 (+/+); 5,780 +/- 450 (+/-); and 877 +/- 420 (-/-). IMP size distribution analysis revealed mean IMP diameters of 8.4 nm ([+/+] and [+/-]) and 5.2 nm ([-/-]). These results demonstrate that AQP1 is the principal water channel in TDLH and support the view that osmotic equilibration along TDLH by water transport plays a key role in the renal countercurrent concentrating mechanism. The similar Pf and AQP1 expression in TDLH of (+/+) and (+/-) mice was an unexpected finding that probably accounts for the unimpaired urinary concentrating ability in (+/-) mice.