P-glycoproteins (P-gps) encoded by mdr1 (multidrug resistance) genes mediate extrusion of numerous lipophilic xeno- and endobiotics through the plasma membrane. Rhodamine 123 (Rh123), a fluorescent dye which is accumulated by mitochondria, is a mdr1 substrate and a well-established tool to study mdr1 transport activity. Inhibitors of mdr1-dependent transport such as verapamil or cyclosporin A have been found to decrease Rh123 efflux from mdr1-expressing cells. Mdr1b gene expression increases with time in primary rat hepatocyte culture. In hepatocytes cultured for 4 days and expressing high levels of P-gp, intracellular Rh123 accumulation was enhanced in the presence of mdr1 inhibitors (cyclosporin A, 8 and 80 microM, verapamil, 8 and 80 microM, or triton X-100, 8 microM). Surprisingly, in hepatocytes expressing low levels of P-gp (after 1 day of culture), time-dependent Rh123 accumulation was not enhanced, but delayed by cyclosporin A, verapamil or triton X-100. In these cells orthovanadate (50 microM), an inhibitor of P-glycoprotein ATPase activity, suppressed Rh123 accumulation, while tetraethylammonium (200 microM), an organic cation transporter (OCT) substrate, had no effect. The paradoxical delay in Rh123 accumulation by verapamil and cyclosporin A occurred eventhough these compounds decreased dye extrusion from Rh123 pre-loaded cells. These observations suggest that a hitherto unknown mechanism which is sensitive to modulators of mdr1-activity contributes to Rh123 uptake or accumulation in primary rat hepatocytes.