1. The metabolic fate of infused [1-14C]glutamate was studied in perfused rat liver. The 14C label taken up by the liver was recovered to 85 +/- 2% as 14CO2 and [14C]glutamine. Whereas 14CO2 production accounted for about 70% of the [1-14C]glutamate taken up under conditions of low endogenous rates of glutamine synthesis, stepwise stimulation of glutamine synthesis by NH4Cl increased 14C incorporation into glutamine at the expense of 14CO2 production. Extrapolation to maximal rates of hepatic glutamine synthesis yielded an about 100% utilization of vascular glutamate taken up by the liver for glutamine synthesis. This was observed in both, antegrade and retrograde perfusions and suggests an almost exclusive uptake of glutamate into perivenous glutamine-synthetase-containing hepatocytes. 2. Glutamate was simultaneously taken up and released from perfused rat liver. At a near-physiological influent glutamate concentration (0.1 mM), the rates of unidirectional glutamate influx and efflux were similar (about 100 and 120 nmol g-1 min-1, respectively). 3. During infusion of [1-14C]oxoglutarate (50 microM), addition of glutamate (2 mM) did not affect hepatic uptake of [1-14C]oxoglutarate. However, it increased labeled glutamate release from the liver about 10-fold (from 9 +/- 2 to 86 +/- 20 nmol g-1 min-1; n = 4), whereas 14CO2 production from labeled oxoglutarate decreased by about 40%. This suggests not only different mechanisms of oxoglutarate and glutamate transport across the plasma membrane, but also points to a glutamate/glutamate exchange. 4. Oxoglutarate was recently shown to be taken up almost exclusively by perivenous glutamine-synthetase-containing hepatocytes [Stoll, B & Häussinger, D. (1989) Eur. J. Biochem. 181, 709-716] and [1-14C]oxoglutarate (9 microM) was used to label selectively the intracellular glutamate pool in this perivenous cell population. The specific radioactivity of this intracellular (perivenous) glutamate pool was assessed by measuring the specific radioactivity of newly synthesized glutamine which is continuously released from these cells into the perfusate. Comparison of the specific radioactivities of glutamine and glutamate released from perivenous cells indicates that about 60% of total glutamate release from the liver is derived from the perivenous glutamine-synthetase-containing cell population. Following addition of unlabeled glutamate (0.1 mM), unidirectional glutamate efflux from perivenous cells increased from about 30 to 80 nmol g-1 min-1, whereas glutamate efflux from non-perivenous (presumably periportal) hepatocytes remained largely unaltered (i.e. 20-30 nmol g-1 min-1). 5. It is concluded that, in the intact liver, vascular glutamate is almost exclusively taken up by the small perivenous hepatocyte population containing glutamine synthetase.