A class of N-substituted quinoline compounds has been introduced recently for the fluorescence measurement of Cl concentration in biological preparations. The most Cl-sensitive compound was 6-methoxy-N-[3-sulfopropyl] quinolinium with peak excitation and emission wavelengths of 350 and 442 nm and a Stern-Volmer constant for quenching by Cl of 118 M-1. Six water-soluble quinoline derivatives were synthesized and characterized for the purposes of increasing Cl sensitivity, adding ester functions for cell trapping, and red-shifting the fluorescence peak wavelengths. Acetic acid ester functions were added at the N-, 2-, and 6-positions of the quinoline ring. The best ester compound, N-(6-methoxyquinolyl)acetoethyl ester (MQAE), was water soluble (270 g/liter at 23 degrees C; octanol:H2O partition coefficient of 0.009), had a high Cl sensitivity (Stern-Volmer constant 200 M-1), peak excitation and emission wavelengths of 355 and 460 nm, a fluorescence lifetime of 21.6 ns, and a molar absorbance of 4850 M-1 cm-1 (320 nm). MQAE fluorescence was not altered by the physiological anions HCO3, SO4, and PO4, by cations, or by pH. MQAE was used to measure chloride transport in liposome membranes and in cultured LLC-PK1 cells in monolayer; MQAE leaked out of cells less than 20% in 60 min at 37 degrees C. The physical, optical, and anion quenching properties for the series of ester compounds were determined to establish a set of structure-activity correlates.