Uptake of [35S]lipoate was studied in perfused rat liver and in isolated rat hepatocytes. During single-pass perfusion of [35S]lipoate about 30% of the radioactivity is retained in the liver. A substantial amount of 5,5'-dithiobis(2-nitrobenzoic acid)-reactive material appears in the effluent perfusate, while hepatic efflux of GSH is unchanged. The hepatic uptake of lipoate, the release of thiols, and also the biliary excretion of 35S-labeled compounds are suppressed by octanoate. In isolated hepatocytes the uptake of lipoate follows saturation kinetics showing a Km value of 38 microM and a Vmax of 180 pmol/mg X 10 s. The uptake is temperature-dependent; from the Arrhenius plot an activation energy of 14.8 kcal/mol at 20 microM lipoate is calculated. At high concentrations of lipoate (above 75 microM) a nonsaturable uptake component becomes predominant. Lipoate uptake is selectively inhibited by medium-chain fatty acids. Only slight inhibition is seen in the presence of long-chain fatty acids, and there is no inhibition with acetate or lactate. Substantial inhibition is also observed with acetylsalicylic acid, but not with taurocholate, bromosulfophthalein or biotin. Lipoate uptake can be inhibited by high concentrations of phloretin (200 microM) and is rather insensitive to 4,4'-diisothiocyanostilbene-2,2'-disulfonic acid (200 microM). The results indicate that hepatic uptake of lipoate at physiological concentrations is largely carrier-mediated.