Bilirubin and other cholephilic organic anions are bound to albumin in the circulation; their hepatic uptake involves a carrier-mediated process. To investigate the possible role of serum albumin in the transhepatic transport of a cholephilic ligand, plasma clearance of radioactive bilirubin and its biliary excretion as well as its interaction with plasma proteins were compared between normal and mutant analbuminemic rats (NAR). With a tracer amount of 3H-labeled bilirubin, its plasma clearance and biliary excretion were comparable in both animal groups. However, the plasma clearance of a loading dose of the ligand was significantly increased and its biliary recovery was low in NAR as compared with normal animals. In accord with these findings in vivo, gel permeation chromatographic analysis revealed that the bilirubin binding capacity of serum proteins was significantly lower in NAR than in control animals. When bilirubin was administered to NAR as a mixture with equimolar albumin, its plasma disappearance was considerably decreased and its biliary recovery was increased. Similar effects were observed when albumin was replaced by an equimolar amount of glutathione S-transferases (ligandins). These observations indicate that, although ligand-protein interaction in the circulation is important for directing bilirubin to the plasma membranes of the hepatocyte, this mechanism is not specific for albumin.