The kidneys and the liver are the principal organs for the inactivation of circulating organic cations. Recently, an organic cation transporter (OCT1) has been cloned from rat kidney. In order to answer the question whether OCT1 is involved also in hepatic uptake of organic cations, the pharmacological characteristics of organic cation transport in hepatocytes were compared to the characteristics of transiently expressed OCT1. Primary cultures of rat hepatocytes avidly accumulated the small organic cation 3H-1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium (3H-MPP+). At equilibrium, the hepatocytes accumulated 3H-MPP+ 56-fold. Initial rates of specific 3H-MPP+ transport in hepatocytes were saturable. The half-saturating concentration was 13 mumol/l. 3H-MPP+ transport was sensitive to quinine (Ki = 0.79 mumol/l) and cyanine863 (Ki = 0.097 mumol/l). Quinine and cyanine863 are known inhibitors of type I hepatic transport of cationic drugs and of renal excretion of organic cations, respectively. To compare the functional characteristics of 3H-MPP+ transport in hepatocytes with those of OCT1, OCT1 has been heterologously expressed and characterized in a mammalian cell line (293 cells). Initial rates of 3H-MPP+ transport were saturable, the Km being 13 mumol/l. The rank order of inhibitory potencies of various inhibitors was almost identical in hepatocytes and 293 cells transiently transfected with OCT1. There was a positive correlation between the Ki's for the inhibition of 3H-MPP+ transport in isolated hepatocytes and transfected 293 cells (r = 0.85; P < 0.01; n = 8). The results indicate that OCT1 is functionally expressed not only in the kidney but also in hepatocytes where it is responsible for the transport of small organic cations which, in the past, have been classified as type I substrates.