Nutrients are imported into developing legume seeds by mass flow through the phloem, and reach developing embryos following secretion from their symplasmically isolated coats. To sustain homeostasis of seed coat water relations, phloem-delivered nutrients and water must exit seed coats at rates commensurate with those of import through the phloem. In this context, coats of developing French bean seeds were screened for expression of aquaporin genes resulting in cloning PvPIP1;1, PvPIP2;2 and PvPIP2;3. These genes were differentially expressed in all vegetative organs, but exhibited their strongest expression in seed coats. In seed coats, expression was localized to cells of the nutrient-unloading pathway. Transport properties of the PvPIPs were characterized by expression in Xenopus oocytes. Only PvPIP2;3 showed significant water channel activity (Pos = 150-200 microm s(-1)) even when the plasma membrane intrinsic proteins (PIPs) were co-expressed in various combinations. Permeability increases to glycerol, methylamine and urea were not detected in oocytes expressing PvPIPs. Transport active aquaporins in native plasma membranes of seed coats were demonstrated by measuring rates of osmotic shrinkage of membrane vesicles in the presence and absence of mercuric chloride and silver nitrate. The functional significance of aquaporins in nutrient and water transport in developing seeds is discussed.