The lipophilic cation tetraphenylphosphonium (TPP+) has been extensively utilized as the probe for the membrane potential (Vm) in various cells. For application to mammalian cells, however, two serious problems require resolution: (1), correction of TPP+ binding to intracellular constituents and (2), estimation of the considerable TPP+ accumulation in mitochondria. We propose here a simple corrective method for the TPP+ binding and its accumulation. TPP+ distribution is assumed as: (1), two compartments (a cytosolic and a mitochondrial space); (2), a proportional relationship between TPP+ bound amount and its unbound concentration in each compartment. We theoretically derived the simple equation: Vm = - RT/F ln(C/Mphys ratio/C/Mabol ratio) where R, T and F have their usual thermodynamic significance. Here, the C/M ratio is defined as the ratio of TPP+ concentration of apparent intracellular to extracellular space. The suffixes phys and abol, respectively, mean the physiological and solely Vm-abolished conditions. This equation was checked with hepatocytes, because estimating hepatocytes Vm with TPP+ distribution is not considered possible because of the relatively high mitochondrial content. The selective Vm abolition was achieved by permeabilization with 20 microM of amphotericin B. The Vm value was, thus, estimated to be -38.6 +/- 0.3 mV, compatible with those obtained with microelectrodes in other laboratories. Vm in hepatocytes is composed of transmembrane K+ diffusion potential (-20.6 +/- 0.3 mV) and electrogenic Na+/K(+)-ATPase (-19.6 +/- 0.4 mV). Addition of rheogenic L-alanine caused a transient but significant depolarization (from control to -34 +/- 0.3 mV). These results taken together indicate that hepatocyte Vm can be accurately determined with the present simple method, so that it may possibly be applicable to the evaluation of Vm in other mammalian cells.