Efflux of L-glutamic acid from synaptic plasma membrane vesicles requires external potassium. This requirement is saturated by concentrations of about 15 mequiv/L potassium. In the absence of potassium, L-glutamic acid can be released from the vesicles in the presence of external L-glutamic acid. This stimulation does not require external sodium but is dependent on the external concentration of L-glutamic acid. Half-maximal effects are obtained by concentrations of about 1 microM which are very similar to the apparent Km for L-glutamic acid influx. Efflux of labeled glutamate driven by external sodium plus glutamate requires internal sodium. These findings suggest that the transporter displays an asymmetric behavior toward sodium. This ion dissociates much more slowly than L-glutamic acid on the external surface of the membrane but not on the internal surface. Furthermore, it appears that the transporter translocates potassium in a step distinct from the L-glutamic acid translocation step. The simplest explanation is that upon translocation of sodium and L-glutamic acid and their release to the inside, potassium binds to the transporter, enabling it to return to the outside to allow initiation of a new transport cycle.