Previous studies in the mammalian proximal tubule have suggested that para-aminohippurate (PAH) secretion is approximately threefold greater in the straight segment, or pars recta, than in the convoluted segment, or pars convoluta. However, the possibility that the site of maximal PAH secretion might be related better to particular tubule segments as identified by cell type had not been explored. In addition, the presence or absence of differences in PAH secretion between morphologically identical regions of superficial (SF) vs. juxtamedullary (JM) proximal tubules has not been examined. These issues were studied using a combination of histologic methods and measurement of [(3)H]PAH secretion in isolated perfused tubules. Measurements of microdissected SF and JM proximal tubules from young and adult rabbits revealed that SF proximal tubules were slightly but significantly longer than JM tubules ([young rabbits: SF, 8.69+/-SE 0.14 mm vs. JM, 7.97+/-SE 0.13 mm; P < 0.01] [adult rabbits: SF, 10.61+/-SE 0.28 mm; JM, 9.17+/-SE 0.19 mm; P < 0.001]). Light and electron microscopy revealed three sequential segments (S(1), S(2), and S(3)) along the length of SF and JM proximal tubules as defined by cell type. PAH secretion was measured in each of these three segments by the isolated perfused tubule technique. Net PAH secretion in fmol/mm per min in SF proximal tubules was: S(1), 281+/-SE 21; S(2), 1,508+/-SE 104; S(3), 318+/-SE 46. Corresponding values in JM proximal tubules were 353+/-SE 31, 1,391+/-SE 72, and 188+/-SE 23. Net PAH secretion did not differ between comparable segments of SF and JM proximal tubules. It is concluded that differences in PAH secretion along the proximal tubule correlate best with cell type rather than the arbitrary division of the proximal tubule into pars convoluta and pars recta according to its external configuration. Evidence of functional heterogeneity between comparable segments of SF and JM proximal tubules was not observed.