42K+ and 86Rb+ were used to determine the subcellular distribution of potassium in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii by compartmental analysis. In both wild type and a mutant strain, three distinct compartments (referred to as I, II, and III) were apparent. Using 42K+, we found that these had half-lives for K+ exchange of 1.07 min, 12.8 min, and 2.9 h, respectively, in wild-type cells and 0.93 min, 14.7 min, and 9.8 h, respectively, for the mutants. Half-lives were not significantly different when 86Rb+ was used to trace K+. Compartments I and II probably correspond to the cell wall and cytoplasm, respectively. Based on the lack of a large central vacuole in Chlamydomonas, the effect of a dark pretreatment on the kinetic properties of compartment III and the similarity between the [K+] of compartment III and that of isolated chloroplasts, this slowly exchanging compartment was identified as the chloroplast. Growth of wild-type cells at 100 [mu]M (instead of 10 mM K+) caused no change of cytoplasmic [K+] but reduced chloroplast [K+] very substantially. The mutants failed to grow at 100 [mu]M K+.