The regulation of anion loading to the shoot in maize (Zea mays) was investigated via an electrophysiological characterization of ion conductances in protoplasts isolated from the root stele. Two distinct anion conductances were identified. In protoplasts from well-watered plants, Z. mays xylem-parenchyma quickly-activating anion conductance (Zm-X-QUAC) was the most prevalent conductance and is likely to load the majority of NO(3)(-) and Cl(-) ions to the xylem in nonstressed conditions. Z. mays xylem-parenchyma inwardly-rectifying anion conductance was found at a lower frequency in protoplasts from well-watered plants than Zm-X-QUAC, was much smaller in magnitude in all observed conditions, and is unlikely to be such a major pathway for anion loading into the xylem. Activity of Z. mays xylem-parenchyma inwardly-rectifying anion conductance increased following a water stress prior to protoplast isolation, but the activity of the putative major anion-loading pathway, Zm-X-QUAC, decreased. Addition of abscisic acid (ABA) to protoplasts from well-watered plants also inhibited Zm-X-QUAC activity within minutes, as did a high free Ca(2+)concentration in the pipette. ABA was also seen to activate a Ca(2+)-permeable conductance (Z. mays xylem-parenchyma hyperpolarization activated cation conductance) in protoplasts from well-watered plants. It is postulated that the inhibition of anion loading into the xylem (an important response to a water stress) due to down-regulation of Zm-X-QUAC activity is mediated by an ABA-mediated rise in free cytosolic Ca(2+).