Previous studies in cultured rat hepatocytes revealed that initial uptake of sulfobromophthalein (BSP) was markedly reduced upon removal of Cl- from the medium. In the present study, unidirectional Cl- gradients were established in short-term cultured rat hepatocytes and their effect on BSP uptake was determined. These investigations revealed that BSP uptake requires external Cl- and is not stimulated by unidirectional Cl- gradients, suggesting that BSP transport is not coupled to Cl- transport. In contrast, BSP transport is stimulated by an inside-to-outside OH- gradient, consistent with OH- exchange or H+ cotransport. As the presence of Cl- is essential for but not directly coupled to BSP transport, binding of 35S-BSP to hepatocytes was determined at 4 degrees C. This revealed an approximately 10-fold higher affinity of cells for BSP in the presence as compared to the absence of Cl- (Ka = 3.2 +/- 0.8 vs. 0.42 +/- 0.09 microM-1; P less than 0.02). Affinity of BSP for albumin was Cl(-)-independent, and was approximately 10% of its affinity for cells in the presence of Cl-. These results indicate that extracellular Cl- modulates the affinity of BSP for its hepatocyte transporter.