Cl-/HCO-3 exchange was measured in luminal (LMV) and basolateral (BLMV) membrane vesicles purified from rat medullary thick ascending limb (MTAL). Cl-/HCO-3 exchange in BLMV and LMV was inhibited by DIDS, with respective IC50 values of 3.2 +/- 0.9 and 15.2 +/- 5.2 microM, whereas Cl- conductances were DIDS insensitive. At constant external pH, BLMV 36Cl-/HCO-3 and 36Cl-/Cl- exchanges exhibited a sigmoidal pattern of activation as internal pH (pHi) increased from 6.1 to 8.0, whereas LMV 36Cl-/Cl- exchange was unchanged between pHi 6.7 and 7.8. The 165-kDa AE2 polypeptide and approximately 115-kDa AE1-related polypeptide were present only in BLMV. In contrast, AE1-related polypeptides of approximately 90 and 95 kDa were present not only in BLMV but also (in variable abundance) in LMV. We conclude that rat MTAL BLMV and LMV express distinct anion exchange activities and distinct sets of AE polypeptides. AE2 (and perhaps AE1) in BLMV likely contribute to HCO-3 absorption. In contrast, LMV exchangers may contribute to NaCl absorption via parallel coupling with the luminal Na+/H+ antiporters and/or may provide negative feedback regulation of HCO-3 absorption.