In order to study the mechanism of pancreatic HCO3- transport, a perfused preparation of isolated intra- and interlobular ducts (i.d. 20-40 microns) of rat pancreas was developed. Responses of the epithelium to changes in the bath ionic concentration and to addition of transport inhibitors was monitored by electrophysiological techniques. In this report some properties of the basolateral membrane of pancreatic duct cells are described. The transepithelial potential difference (PDte) in ducts bathed in HCO3(-)-free and HCO3(-)-containing solution was -0.8 and -2.6 mV, respectively. The equivalent short circuit current (Isc) under similar conditions was 26 and 50 microA . cm-2. The specific transepithelial resistance (Rte) was 88 omega cm2. In control solutions the PD across the basolateral membrane (PDbl) was -63 +/- 1 mV (n = 314). Ouabain (3 mmol/l) depolarized PDbl by 4.8 +/- 1.1 mV (n = 6) within less than 10 s. When the bath K+ concentration was increased from 5 to 20 mmol/l, PDbl depolarized by 15.9 +/- 0.9 mV (n = 50). The same K+ concentration step had no effect on PDbl if the ducts were exposed to Ba2+, a K+ channel blocker. Application of Ba2+ (1 mmol/l) alone depolarized PDbl by 26.4 +/- 1.4 mV (n = 19), while another K+ channel blocker TEA+ (50 mmol/l) depolarized PDbl only by 7.7 +/- 2.0 mV (n = 9). Addition of amiloride (1 mmol/l) to the bath caused 3-4 mV depolarization of PDbl. Furosemide (0.1 mmol/l) and SITS (0.1 mmol/l) had no effect on PDbl. An increase in the bath HCO3- concentration from 0 to 25 mmol/l produced fast and sustained depolarization of PDbl by 8.5 +/- 1.0 mV (n = 149). It was investigated whether the effect of HCO3- was due to a Na+-dependent transport mechanism on the basolateral membrane, where the ion complex transferred into the cell would be positively charged, or whether it was due to decreased K+ conductance caused by lowered intracellular pH. Experiments showed that the HCO3- effect was present even when the bath Na+ concentration was reduced to a nominal value of 0 mmol/l. Similarly, the HCO3- effect remained unchanged after Ba2+ (5 mmol/l) was added to the bath. The results indicate that on the basolateral membrane of duct cells there is a ouabain sensitive (Na+ + K+)-ATPase, a Ba2+ sensitive K+ conductance and an amiloride sensitive Na+/H+ antiport. The HCO3- effect on PDbl is most likely due to rheogenic anion exit across the luminal membrane.