To determine whether anion exchangers might play a role in hepatic bile formation, we looked for the presence of Cl-:OH- and Cl-:HCO3- exchange in highly purified canalicular (c) and basolateral (bl) rat liver plasma membrane (LPM) vesicles. In cLPM vesicles, a pH gradient (7.7 in/6.0 out) stimulated 36Cl- uptake twofold above values obtained during pH-equilibrated conditions (7.7 in = out). When 50 mM HCO3- was also present inside the vesicles, the same pH gradient (7.7 in/6.0 out) resulted in Cl- uptake to levels fourfold above pH- and HCO3--equilibrated controls and two- to threefold above Cl- equilibrium (overshoot). Initial rates of both pH and HCO3- gradient-stimulated Cl- uptake were completely inhibited by 4,4'-diisothiocyano-2,2'-disulfonic acid stilbene (DIDS). A valinomycin-induced K+ diffusion potential (inside positive) also stimulated Cl- uptake in cLPM, but this conductive Cl- pathway was insensitive to DIDS. The DIDS-sensitive, pH and HCO3- gradient-stimulated Cl- uptake demonstrated: saturation with Cl- (Km approximately 6.3 mM; Vmax approximately 51 nmol X mg-1 X min-1); partial inhibition by bumetanide (26%), furosemide (33%), probenecid (37%), and 4-acetamido-4'-isothiocyano-2,2'-disulfonic acid stilbene (49%); cis-inhibition by chloride and nitrate but not by sulfate and various organic anions, and independence from the membrane potential. These data demonstrate the presence of an electroneutral Cl-:OH- and Cl-:HCO3- exchanger in rat liver canalicular membranes that favors Cl-:HCO3- exchange. In contrast, no evidence was found for the presence of a Cl-:HCO3- (OH-) exchange system in blLPM vesicles. Furthermore, neither blLPM nor cLPM vesicles exhibited Na+-stimulatable Cl- uptake, indicating the absence of a NaCl co-transport system in either LPM subfraction. These findings are consistent with a functional role for a Cl-:HCO3- (OH-) exchanger in canalicular bile formation.