Defective transepithelial electrolyte transport is thought to initiate cystic fibrosis (CF) lung disease. Yet, how loss of CFTR affects electrolyte transport remains uncertain. CFTR⁻(/)⁻ pigs spontaneously develop lung disease resembling human CF. At birth, their airways exhibit a bacterial host defense defect, but are not inflamed. Therefore, we studied ion transport in newborn nasal and tracheal/bronchial epithelia in tissues, cultures, and in vivo. CFTR⁻(/)⁻ epithelia showed markedly reduced Cl⁻ and HCO₃⁻ transport. However, in contrast to a widely held view, lack of CFTR did not increase transepithelial Na(+) or liquid absorption or reduce periciliary liquid depth. Like human CF, CFTR⁻(/)⁻ pigs showed increased amiloride-sensitive voltage and current, but lack of apical Cl⁻ conductance caused the change, not increased Na(+) transport. These results indicate that CFTR provides the predominant transcellular pathway for Cl⁻ and HCO₃⁻ in porcine airway epithelia, and reduced anion permeability may initiate CF airway disease.
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