NH4Cl acidosis--a common experimental model of hyperchloremic metabolic acidosis--elicits complex intrarenal responses whereby the fall in plasma bicarbonate concentration can be restored to normal after the initial acid load. Using the technique of in vivo micropuncture of surface distal tubules of the rat kidney, we attempted to further define controlling mechanisms underlying the enhanced bicarbonate reabsorption in this setting. Specifically, we wished to determine the dependence of distal tubule bicarbonate reabsorption (JtCO2) on sodium transport, water reabsorption, and carbonic anhydrase activity. Surface distal tubules of Sprague-Dawley rats made acidotic by ammonium chloride gavage (arterial blood pH: 7.15 +/- 0.01, [HCO3]: 14.8 +/- 0.5 mM) were perfused in vivo at 8 and 24 nL/min with 4 different isoosmotic, 25 mM bicarbonate solutions: Group 1 was perfused with 60 mM Na, Group 2 with 60 mM choline, Group 3 with 60 mM choline + 3 x 10(-4) M amiloride, and Group 4 with 60 mM Na + 10(-3) M acetazolamide. At 8 nL/min, significant bicarbonate reabsorption occurred with all perfusates. JtCO2 was 65 +/- 4, 59 +/- 5, 58 +/- 6, and 40 +/- 4 pmol.min-1.mm-1, in Groups 1, 2, 3, and 4, respectively. However, JtCO2 in Group 4 was significantly less than that in Groups 1 and 2 (p less than 0.01 and p less than 0.05, respectively). Amiloride added to the low sodium perfusate did not reduce bicarbonate reabsorption. We conclude that bicarbonate reabsorption in distal tubules of acidotic rats is acetazolamide-sensitive and is not significantly sustained by sodium or water movements.