Cell signaling and ion transport across the fish gill epithelium

J Exp Zool. 2002 Aug 1;293(3):336-47. doi: 10.1002/jez.10128.


A large array of circulating and local signaling agents modulate transport of ions across the gill epithelium of fishes by either affecting transport directly or by altering the size and distribution of transporting cells in the epithelium. In some cases, these transport effects are in addition to cardiovascular effects of the same agents, which may affect the perfusion pathways in the gill vasculature and, in turn, affect epithelial transport indirectly. Prolactin is generally considered to function in freshwater, because it is the only agent that allows survival of some hypophysectomized fish species in freshwater. It appears to function by either reducing branchial permeability, Na,K-activated ATPase activity, or reducing the density of chloride cells. Cortisol was initially considered to produce virtually opposite effects (e.g., stimulation of Na,K-activated ATPase and of chloride cell size and density), but more recent studies have found that this steroid stimulates ionic uptake in freshwater fishes, as well as the activity of H-ATPase, an enzyme thought to be central to ionic uptake. Thus, cortisol may function in both high and low salinities. Growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor appear to act synergistically to affect ion regulation in seawater fishes, stimulating both Na,K-activated ATPase and Na-K-2Cl co-transporter activity, and chloride cell size, independent of their effects on growth. Some of the effects of the GH-IGF axis may be via stimulation of the number of cortisol receptors. Thyroid hormones appear to affect seawater ion regulation indirectly, by stimulating the GH-IGF axis. Natriuretic peptides were initially thought to stimulate gill ionic extrusion, but recent studies have not corroborated this finding, so it appears that the major mode of action of these peptides may be reduction of salt loading by inhibition of oral ingestion and intestinal ionic uptake. Receptors for both arginine vasotocin and angiotensin have been described in the gill epithelium, but their respective roles and importance in fish ion regulation remains unknown. The gill epithelium may be affected by both circulating and local adrenergic agents, and a variety of studies have demonstrated that stimulation of alpha-adrenergic versus beta-adrenergic receptors produces inhibition or stimulation of active salt extrusion, respectively. Local effectors, such as prostaglandins, nitric oxide, and endothelin, may affect active salt extrusion as well as gill perfusion. Recent studies have suggested that the endothelin inhibition of salt extrusion is actually mediated by the release of both NO and prostaglandins. It is hoped that modern molecular techniques, combined with physiological measurements, will allow the dissection of the relative roles in ion transport across the fish gill epithelium of this surprisingly large array of putative signaling agents.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Angiotensins / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Branchial Region / physiology
  • Endothelins / pharmacology
  • Epinephrine / pharmacology
  • Epithelium / physiology
  • Fishes / physiology*
  • Gills / physiology*
  • Growth Hormone / pharmacology
  • Ion Transport / physiology*
  • Natriuretic Agents / pharmacology
  • Nitric Oxide / pharmacology
  • Norepinephrine / pharmacology
  • Permeability
  • Prostaglandins / pharmacology
  • Signal Transduction
  • Somatomedins / pharmacokinetics
  • Thyroid Hormones / pharmacology
  • Vasotocin / pharmacology


  • Angiotensins
  • Endothelins
  • Natriuretic Agents
  • Prostaglandins
  • Somatomedins
  • Thyroid Hormones
  • Nitric Oxide
  • Growth Hormone
  • Vasotocin
  • Norepinephrine
  • Epinephrine