Sodium and chloride transport by the macula densa and thick ascending limb of Henle's loop participates importantly in extracellular fluid volume homeostasis, urinary concentration and dilution, control of glomerular filtration, and control of renal hemodynamics. Transepithelial Na and Cl transport across the apical membrane of thick ascending limb (TALH) cells is mediated predominantly by a loop diuretic sensitive Na-K-2Cl cotransport pathway. The corresponding transport protein has recently been cloned. Functional studies suggest that the cotransporter is expressed by macula densa cells as well as by TALH cells. The current studies were designed to identify sites of Na-K-2Cl cotransporter expression along distal nephron in rabbit and rat. Non-isotopic high-resolution in situ hybridization, using an antisense probe for the apical form of the Na-K-2Cl cotransporter identified expression throughout the TALH, from the junction between inner and outer medulla to the transition to distal convoluted tubule. Expression by macula densa cells was confirmed by colocalization using markers specific for macula densa cells. First, Na-K-2Cl cotransporter mRNA was detected in macula densa cells that did not stain with anti-Tamm-Horsfall protein antibodies. Second, Na-K-2Cl cotransporter mRNA was detected in macula densa cells that show positive NADPH-diaphorase reaction, indicating high levels of constitutive nitric oxide synthase activity. In rat, levels of Na-K-2Cl cotransporter mRNA expression were similar in TALH and macula densa cells. In rabbit, expression levels were higher in macula densa cells than in surrounding TALH cells. The present data provide morphological support for a previously established functional concept that Na-K-2Cl cotransport at the TALH is accomplished by the expression of a well-defined cotransporter. At the macula densa, this transporter may establish a crucial link between tubular salt load and glomerular vascular regulation.