In general, increasing external K+ concentration, as well as exposure to hypotonic medium, induces a shortening of outer hair cells (OHCs) accompanied by an increase in width and volume. One possible mechanism suggested for these changes is a movement of Cl- and/or water across the cell membrane. We therefore examined the role of Cl- in OHC volume maintenance by testing the effect of decreasing extracellular Cl- concentration on OHC length and shape. In addition, the effect of hypotonic medium was examined. OHCs were isolated from guinea pig cochleae, mechanically dissociated and dispersed, and placed in a modified Hanks balanced salt solution (HBS). Exposing the cells to a Cl(-)-free HBS produced an initial shortening, which was rapidly followed by an increase in length. After about 9 min of exposure to Cl(-)-free HBS, the cells appeared to lose all water and collapsed. Upon return to normal HBS, the OHCs returned to their normal shape. We speculate that the collapse of the OHCs may be due to the loss of intracellular Cl-, which, in turn, resulted in the loss of intracellular K+ and water. The results indicate that Cl- contributes greatly to the maintenance of OHC volume. In addition, we confirmed that isolated OHCs swell in hypotonic medium and maintain their swollen state until returned to normal medium. The mechanism for maintenance of the swollen state is unknown.