Urea diffuses across the terminal inner medullary collecting duct (IMCD) via a facilitated transport pathway. To examine the mechanism of transcellular urea transport, membrane-apparent urea (Purea) and osmotic water (Pf) permeabilities of IMCD cells were measured by quantitative light microscopy in isolated IMCD-2 tubules perfused in the absence of vasopressin. Basolateral membrane Pf, determined by addition of raffinose to the bath, was 69 microns/s. Basolateral membrane Purea, determined by substituting urea for raffinose without change in osmolality, was 14 X 10(-5) cm/s. Bath phloretin inhibited basolateral Purea by 85% without a significant effect on Pf. The basolateral reflection coefficient for urea, determined by addition of urea in the presence of phloretin, was 1.0. These results indicate that urea crosses the basolateral membrane by diffusion, and not by solvent drag. In perfused tubules, the rate of cell swelling following substitution of urea for mannitol was significantly greater with bath than lumen changes. After correcting for membrane surface area, the basolateral membrane was twofold more permeable than the apical membrane.
Conclusions: (a) in the absence of vasopressin, urea permeation across the IMCD cell is limited by the apical membrane; (b) the basolateral membrane contains a phloretin-sensitive urea transporter; (c) transepithelial urea transport occurs by movement of urea through the IMCD cell.