It has long been held that cortisol, acting through a single receptor, carries out both glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid actions in teleost fish. The recent finding that fish express a gene with high sequence similarity to the mammalian mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) suggests the possibility that a hormone other than cortisol carries out some mineralocorticoid functions in fish. To test for this possibility, we examined the effect of in vivo cortisol, 11-deoxycorticosterone (DOC) and aldosterone on salinity tolerance, gill Na(+),K(+)-ATPase (NKA) activity and mRNA levels of NKA alpha 1a and alpha 1b in Atlantic salmon. Cortisol treatment for 6-14 days resulted in increased, physiological levels of cortisol, increased gill NKA activity and improved salinity tolerance (lower plasma chloride after a 24h seawater challenge), whereas DOC and aldosterone had no effect on either NKA activity or salinity tolerance. NKA alpha 1a and alpha 1b mRNA levels, which increase in response to fresh water and seawater acclimation, respectively, were both upregulated by cortisol, whereas DOC and aldosterone were without effect. Cortisol, DOC and aldosterone had no effect on gill glucocorticoid receptor GR1, GR2 and MR mRNA levels, although there was some indication of possible upregulation of GR1 by cortisol (p=0.07). The putative GR blocker RU486 inhibited cortisol-induced increases in salinity tolerance, NKA activity and NKA alpha 1a and alpha 1b transcription, whereas the putative MR blocker spironolactone had no effect. The results provide support that cortisol, and not DOC or aldosterone, is involved in regulating the mineralocorticoid functions of ion uptake and salt secretion in teleost fish.