Traditionally, the measurement of transport activity has employed radiolabeled compounds. The resulting experimental procedures do not measure transport in real time and are limited in temporal and spatial resolution. The use of epifluorescence microscopy provides the ability to measure transport activity in real time with high temporal and spatial resolution. Using epifluorescence microscopy we characterized the transport of the fluorescent organic cation, [2-(4-nitro-2,1,3-benzoxadiazol-7-yl)aminoethyl]trimethylammonium (NBD-TMA+, MW 266). NBD-TMA+ has structural characteristics common to other secreted organic cations and is fluorescent (lambda(ex)=458 nm; lambda(em)=530 nm). The excitation and emission spectra are insensitive to changes in [Cl-] and minimally sensitive to pH in the physiologically relevant range (pH 5.0-7.4). A microscope equipped with a photon-detection system was used to measure accumulation of NBD-TMA+ by isolated rabbit renal proximal tubules. Accumulation of NBD-TMA+ by proximal tubules was time dependent and saturable (Michaelis-Menten constant Km 12 microM). Proximal tubule accumulation of NBD-TMA+ was inhibited by the organic cations tetraethylammonium (TEA+) (apparent inhibitory constant K(app)TEA 134 microM), cimetidine, and N1-methylnicotinamide (NMN). Our experimental results provide strong evidence that NBD-TMA+ is transported by one or more of the basolateral organic cation transporters involved in the renal secretion of this chemical class of compound. This fluorescent substrate provides a sensitive means of investigating organic cation transport.