The mammalian distal nephron plays a pivotal role in adjusting urinary sodium excretion. Successive portions of the renal tubule are formed to adapt to this function, and an axial heterogeneity of the distal segments has been defined. The specific transport properties of these epithelia are accomplished by the expression of proteins (cotransporters, exchangers, channels) governing the movement of ions on either cell side. Molecular cloning of these proteins has had a marked impact on the study of their localization and function in the healthy and diseased kidney. Electroneutral cation-chloride cotransporters [Na(K)CC] have been localized to the thick ascending limb and the distal convoluted tubule using specific probes. Proteins implicated in the function of aldosterone target cells, such as the epithelial Na(+) channel (ENaC), the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) and 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 (11HSD2), an enzyme that confers mineralocorticoid specificity, have been found in the terminal portion of the nephron and the collecting duct. A mineralocorticoid-sensitive component of thiazide-sensitive NaCl transport has been identified in the distal convoluted tubule. Analysis of the ontogeny of these proteins in the maturing kidney has provided a detailed picture of epithelial differentiation and morphological specialization of the renal tubule. The study of mutations of the proteins related with NaCl transport has led to the identification of the molecular causes of inherited human diseases associated with hypo- or hypertension, and the respective sites of an impaired ion transport could be mapped to the renal tubule.