The eurohaline fish, Fundulus heteroclitus, adapts rapidly to enhanced salinity by increasing the ion secretion by gill chloride cells. An increase of approximately 70 mOsm in plasma osmolarity was previously found during the transition. To mimic this in vitro, isolated opercular epithelia of seawater-adapted Fundulus mounted in a modified Ussing chamber were exposed to an increase in NaCl and/or osmolarity on the basolateral side, which immediately increased I(SC). Various Cl(-) channel blockers as well as the K(+) channel blocker Ba(2+) added to the basolateral side all inhibited the steady-state as well as the hypertonic stimulation of I(SC). The exists -agonist isoproterenol stimulates I(SC) in standard Ringer solutions. In contrast, when cell volume was kept at the larger value by simultaneous addition of water, the stimulation with isoproterenol was abolished, suggesting that the key process for activation of the Na(+), K(+), 2Cl(-) cotransporter is cell shrinkage. The protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitor chelerythrine and the myosin light chain kinase (MLCK) inhibitor ML-7 had strong inhibitory effects on the mannitol activation of I(SC), thus both MLCK and PKC are involved. The two specific protein kinase A (PKA) inhibitors H-89 and KT 5720 had no effect after mannitol addition whereas isoproterenol stimulation was completely blocked by H-89. This indicates that PKA is involved in the activation of the apical Cl(-) channel via c-AMP whereas the shrinkage activation of the Na(+), K(+), 2Cl(-) cotransporter is independent of PKA activation. The steady-state Cl(-) secretion was stimulated by an inhibitor of serine/threonine phosphatases of the PP-1 and PP-2A type and inhibited by a PKC inhibitor but not by a PKA inhibitor. Thus, it seems to be determined by continuous phosphorylation and dephosphorylation involving PKC but not PKA. The steady-state Cl(-) secretion and the maximal obtainable Cl(-) secretion were measured in freshwater-adapted fish and in fish retransferred to saltwater. No I(SC) could be measured in freshwater-adapted fish or in the fish within the first 18 h after transfer to saltwater. As evidenced from Western blot analysis using antiserine-antibodies, a heavily serine phosphorylated protein of about 190 kDa was consistently observed in the saltwater-acclimated fish, but was only weakly present in freshwater-acclimated fish. This observation indicates that acclimatization to saltwater stimulates the expression of this 190-kDa protein and/or a serine/threonine kinase, which subsequently phosphorylates the protein.