Elucidation of the gene defects responsible for many disorders of renal fluid and electrolyte homeostasis has provided new insights into normal and abnormal physiology. Identifying the causes of Gitelman's and Bartter's syndromes has greatly enhanced our understanding of ion transport by thick ascending limb and distal convoluted tubule cells. Despite this information, several phenotypic features of these diseases remain confusing, even in the face of molecular insight. Paramount among these are disorders of divalent cation homeostasis. Bartter's syndrome is caused by dysfunction of thick ascending limb cells. It is associated with calcium wasting, but magnesium wasting is usually mild. Loop diuretics, which inhibit ion transport by thick ascending limb cells, markedly increase urinary excretion of both calcium and magnesium. In contrast, Gitelman's syndrome is caused by dysfunction of the distal convoluted tubule. Hypocalciuria and hypomagnesemia are universal parts of this disorder. Yet although thiazide diuretics, which inhibit ion transport by distal convoluted tubule cells, reduce urinary calcium excretion, they have minimal effects on urinary magnesium excretion, when given acutely. This review proposes mechanisms that may account for the differences between the effects of diuretic drugs and the phenotypic features of Gitelman's and Bartter's syndromes. These mechanisms are based on recent insights from another inherited disease of ion transport, inherited magnesium wasting, and from a review of the chronic effects of diuretic drugs in animals and people.