The isolated and perfused cortical collecting tubule of the rabbit was examined by differential interference contrast microscopy in order to characterize the morphologic response of this nephron segment to peritubular hypotonicity. Computer-assisted, morphometric procedures were developed to obtain measurements of cell volume and lateral intercellular space geometry from interference contrast images of perfused nephron segments. Following dilution of the bath from 290 to 190 mOsm in the absence of antidiuretic hormone (T = 25 degrees C), the cells swelled rapidly to a new steady-state volume which was maintained for at least 20 to 30 min and which was about 90% of that predicted for ideal osmometric behavior. The increase in cell volume was accomplished entirely by bulging of the cells into the lumen; lateral space width and outside tubule diameter were unaffected by peritubular hypotonicity. In addition, the swelling of the cells was associated with an apparent swelling of intracellular organelles, e.g., nuclei and mitochondria. Our results indicate that cells of the mammalian collecting tubule swell without the capacity for significant volume regulation at 25 degrees C and without the cytoplasmic vacuolation and dilation of the lateral intercellular spaces observed following the onset of antidiuretic hormone-dependent volume reabsorption (E. Ganote , J. Grantham , H. Moses, M. Burg and J. Orloff , J. Cell Biol. 36:355, 1968).