The mechanisms underlying cytoplasmic pH (pHi) regulation in rat thymic lymphocytes were studied using trapped fluorescein derivatives as pHi indicators. Cells that were acid-loaded with nigericin in choline+ media recovered normal pHi upon addition of extracellular Na+ (Nao+). The cytoplasmic alkalinization was accompanied by medium acidification and an increase in cellular Na+ content and was probably mediated by a Nao+/Hi+ antiport. At normal [Na+]i, Nao+/Hi+ exchange was undetectable at pHi greater than or equal to 6.9 but was markedly stimulated by internal acidification. Absolute rates of H+ efflux could be calculated from the Nao+-induced delta pHi using a buffering capacity of 25 mmol X liter-1 X pH-1, measured by titration of intact cells with NH4+. At pHi = 6.3, pHo = 7.2, and [Na+]o = 140 mM, H+ extrusion reached 10 mmol X liter-1 X min-1. Nao+/Hi+ exchange was stimulated by internal Na+ depletion and inhibited by lowering pHo and by addition of amiloride (apparent Ki = 2.5 microM). Inhibition by amiloride was competitive with respect to Nao+. Hi+ could also exchange for Lio+, but not for K+, Rb+, Cs+, or choline+. Nao+/Hi+ countertransport has an apparent 1:1 stoichiometry and is electrically silent. However, a small secondary hyperpolarization follows recovery from acid-loading in Na+ media. This hyperpolarization is amiloride- and ouabain-sensitive and probably reflects activation of the electrogenic Na+-K+ pump. At normal Nai+ values, the Nao+/Hi+ antiport of thymocytes is ideally suited for the regulation of pHi. The system can also restore [Na+]i in Na+-depleted cells. In this instance the exchanger, in combination with the considerable cytoplasmic buffering power, will operate as a [Na+]i-regulatory mechanism.

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