An electrogenic Na+/HCO3- cotransport system was studied in freshly dissociated Muller cells of the salamander retina. Cotransporter currents were recorded from isolated cells using the whole-cell, voltage-clamp technique following the block of K+ conductance with external Ba2+ and internal Cs+. At constant pHo, an outward current was evoked when extracellular HCO3- concentration was raised by pressure ejecting a HCO3(-)-buffered solution onto the surface of cells bathed in nominally HCO3(-)-free solution. The HCO3(-)-evoked outward current was reduced to 4.4% of control by 0.5 mM DIDS (4,4′- diisothiocyanatostilbene-2,2′-disulfonate), to 28.8% of control by 2 mM DNDS (4,4′-dinitrostilbene-2,2′-disulfonate), and to 28.4% of control by 2 mM harmaline. Substitution of choline for Na+ in bath and ejection solutions reduced the response to 1.3% of control. Bicarbonate-evoked currents of normal magnitude were recorded when methane sulfonate was substituted for Cl- in bath, ejection, and intracellular solutions. Similarly, an outward current was evoked when extracellular Na+ concentration was raised in the presence of HCO3-. The Na(+)-evoked response was reduced to 16.2% of control by 2 mM DNDS and was abolished by removal of HCO3- from bath and ejection solutions. Taken together, these results (block by stilbenes and harmaline, HCO3- and Na+ dependence, Cl- independence) indicate that salamander Muller cells possess an electrogenic Na+/HCO3- cotransport system. Na+/HCO3- cotransporter sites were localized primarily at the endfoot region of Muller cells. Ejection of HCO3- onto the endfoot evoked outward currents 10 times larger than currents evoked by ejections onto the opposite (distal) end of the cell. The reversal potential of the cotransporter was determined by DNDS block of cotransport current. In the absence of a transmembrane HCO3- gradient, the reversal potential varied systematically as a function of the transmembrane Na+ gradient. The reversal potential was -0.1 mV for a [Na+]o:[Na+]i ratio of 1:1 and -25.2 mV for a Na+ gradient ratio of 7.4:1. Based on these values, the estimated stoichiometry of the cotransporter was 2.80 +/- 0.13:1 (HCO3- :Na+). Possible functions of the glial cell Na+/HCO3- cotransporter, including the regulation of CO2 in the retina and the regulation of cerebral blood flow, are discussed.