The kinetics and mechanism of the hepatic uptake of beta-lactam antibiotics were studied by using freshly prepared rat hepatocytes. The initial uptake rates of benzylpenicillin and cefpiramide represented both saturable and nonsaturable transport processes, whereas that of cefazolin showed an apparently nonsaturable uptake process within the concentration range below 4 mM. The apparent nonsaturable uptake rate constants for benzylpenicillin, cefpiramide and cefazolin were 0.580, 0.047 and 0.289 nmoles/min/mg protein/mM respectively. The apparent values of Kt and Vmax describing the saturable transport were 0.473 +/- 0.158 mM and 2.02 +/- 0.48 nmoles/min/mg protein for benzylpenicillin and 0.847 +/- 0.254 mM and 0.70 +/- 0.18 nmoles/min/mg protein for cefpiramide respectively. The Arrhenius plot of benzylpenicillin uptake of 200 microM presented a single straight line in the range of 22 degrees-37 degrees with an activation energy of 16.8 kcal/mole. An energy requirement was also demonstrated for benzylpenicillin uptake as metabolic inhibitors (antimycin A, NaCN, rotenone and 2,4-dinitrophenol) significantly reduced the initial uptake rate of benzylpenicillin (P less than 0.05). Uptake of benzylpenicillin (200 microM) was not inhibited by ouabain (1 mM). Benzylpenicillin uptake was inhibited competitively by phenoxymethylpenicillin, cefpiramide and cefazolin with the inhibition constants, Ki, of 0.680, 0.583 and 11.7 mM respectively. Benzylpenicillin also inhibited competitively the uptake of cefpiramide with a Ki of 0.655 mM. From these results it was considered that a carrier-mediated uptake system participates in the hepatic uptake of at least four of the beta-lactam antibiotics examined in this study.