Ammonia excretion and urea handling by fish gills: present understanding and future research challenges

J Exp Zool. 2002 Aug 1;293(3):284-301. doi: 10.1002/jez.10123.


In fresh water fishes, ammonia is excreted across the branchial epithelium via passive NH(3) diffusion. This NH(3) is subsequently trapped as NH(4)(+) in an acidic unstirred boundary layer lying next to the gill, which maintains the blood-to-gill water NH(3) partial pressure gradient. Whole animal, in situ, ultrastructural and molecular approaches suggest that boundary layer acidification results from the hydration of CO(2) in the expired gill water, and to a lesser extent H(+) excretion mediated by apical H(+)-ATPases. Boundary layer acidification is insignificant in highly buffered sea water, where ammonia excretion proceeds via NH(3) diffusion, as well as passive NH(4)(+) diffusion due to the greater ionic permeability of marine fish gills. Although Na(+)/H(+) exchangers (NHE) have been isolated in marine fish gills, possible Na(+)/NH(4)(+) exchange via these proteins awaits evaluation using modern electrophysiological and molecular techniques. Although urea excretion (J(Urea)) was thought to be via passive diffusion, it is now clear that branchial urea handling requires specialized urea transporters. Four urea transporters have been cloned in fishes, including the shark kidney urea transporter (shUT), which is a facilitated urea transporter similar to the mammalian renal UT-A2 transporter. Another urea transporter, characterized but not yet cloned, is the basolateral, Na(+) dependent urea antiporter of the dogfish gill, which is essential for urea retention in ureosmotic elasmobranchs. In ureotelic teleosts such as the Lake Magadi tilapia and the gulf toadfish, the cloned mtUT and tUT are facilitated urea transporters involved in J(Urea). A basolateral urea transporter recently cloned from the gill of the Japanese eel (eUT) may actually be important for urea retention during salt water acclimation. A multi-faceted approach, incorporating whole animal, histological, biochemical, pharmacological, and molecular techniques is required to learn more about the location, mechanism of action, and functional significance of urea transporters in fishes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Ammonia / pharmacokinetics*
  • Animals
  • Branchial Region / physiology
  • Carrier Proteins / physiology
  • Diffusion
  • Fishes / physiology*
  • Gills / physiology*
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / physiology
  • Membrane Transport Proteins*
  • Pressure


  • Carrier Proteins
  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • Membrane Transport Proteins
  • urea transporter
  • Ammonia