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Teleost fish osmoregulation is largely the result of integrated transport activities of the gill, gut and renal system. The basic ‘epithelial fabric’ in each of these tissues is adapted to provide the appropriate transport mechanisms depending upon whether the fish is in fresh water or sea water. Net NaCl transport by the branchial epithelium reverses direction when euryhaline species migrate between the two media, providing a useful focus in experiments designed to elucidate mechanisms of differentiation and integration of transport function. Isolated opercular membranes and skins from certain seawater-adapted species are good models to study branchial salt extrusion mechanisms. These heterogeneous tissues generate short-circuit currents equal to net chloride secretion. The vibrating probe technique has allowed localization of all current and almost all conductance to the apical crypt of chloride cells. Area-specific surface current and conductance of chloride cells are 18 mA cm-2 and 580 mS cm-2 (1.7 omega cm2), ranking them as one of the most actively transporting and conductive cells known. There is no net sodium transport under short-circuit conditions but the chloride secretion process is sodium-dependent and ouabain and ‘loop’-diuretic sensitive. Sodium fluxes through chloride cells are large (PNa = 5.2 X 10(−4) cms-1) nd appear passive and rate-limited by a single barrier. A link may exist between the active transport and leak pathways since sodium fluxes always account for 50% of chloride cell conductance. The sodium pathway is probably the chloride cell-accessory cell tight junction, although this is still unresolved. Chloride secretion can be rapidly modulated by several hormones, including catecholamines, somatostatin, glucagon, vasoactive intestinal polypeptide and urotensins I and II. Regulation by these hormones may be by rapid alterations of cellular cAMP levels. Differentiation of chloride cells and chloride secretion may be controlled by cortisol and prolactin. Cortisol stimulates chloride cell proliferation and differentiation and appears to interact with NaCl to initiate salt secretion. Prolactin appears to cause chloride cell dedifferentiation by reducing both the active-transport and leak pathways proportionately.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)