The relationship between neuronal glutamate turnover, the glutamate/glutamine cycle and de novo glutamate synthesis was examined using two different model systems, freshly dissected rat retinas ex vivo and in vivo perfused rat brains. In the ex vivo rat retina, dual kinetic control of de novo glutamate synthesis by pyruvate carboxylation and transamination of alpha-ketoglutarate to glutamate was demonstrated. Rate limitation at the transaminase step is likely imposed by the limited supply of amino acids which provide the alpha-amino group to glutamate. Measurements of synthesis of (14)C-glutamate and of (14)C-glutamine from H(14)CO(3) have shown that (14)C-amino acid synthesis increased 70% by raising medium pyruvate from 0.2 to 5 mM. The specific radioactivity of (14)C-glutamine indicated that approximately 30% of glutamine was derived from (14)CO(2) fixation. Using gabapentin, an inhibitor of the cytosolic branched-chain aminotransferase, synthesis of (14)C-glutamate and (14)C-glutamine from H(14)CO(3)(-) was inhibited by 31%. These results suggest that transamination of alpha-ketoglutarate to glutamate in Müller cells is slow, the supply of branched-chain amino acids may limit flux, and that branched-chain amino acids are an obligatory source of the nitrogen required for optimal rates of de novo glutamate synthesis. Kinetic analysis suggests that the glutamate/glutamine cycle accounts for 15% of total neuronal glutamate turnover in the ex vivo retina. To examine the contribution of the glutamate/glutamine cycle to glutamate turnover in the whole brain in vivo, rats were infused intravenously with H(14)CO(3)(-). (14)C-metabolites in brain extracts were measured to determine net incorporation of (14)CO(2) and specific radioactivity of glutamate and glutamine. The results indicate that 23% of glutamine in the brain in vivo is derived from (14)CO(2) fixation. Using published values for whole brain neuronal glutamate turnover, we calculated that the glutamate/glutamine cycle accounts for approximately 60% of total neuronal turnover. Finally, differences between glutamine/glutamate cycle rates in these two model systems suggest that the cycle is closely linked to neuronal activity.