- We compared the distribution and putative association of Cl- channel transport, CFTR mRNA transcripts, and Na+ channel (ENaC) alpha- and beta-subunit mRNA transcripts in villus and crypt epithelial cells of duodenum, with corresponding surface and crypt cells of colon from sodium-depleted rats. Cells were loaded with 36Cl- and forskolin-stimulated efflux was determined. RT-PCR was performed for CFTR mRNA transcripts and ENaC alpha- and beta-subunit mRNA. Duodenal epithelial cell response to VIP was assessed by measuring intracellular cAMP. Forskolin-stimulated Cl- efflux occurred with decreasing magnitude in duodenal crypt, duodenal villus, colonic crypt and colonic surface cells in Na(+)-depleted animals. CFTR expression was correlated directly with Cl- efflux (r=0.91, P<0.01). Na+ channel alpha-subunit was expressed in colon and duodenum in animals fed diets with a high or low sodium content. While the beta-subunit mRNA was detected in the colon of sodium-restricted rats, it was absent in the duodenum under control conditions and after Na+ restriction. There was an inverse correlation between mRNA transcripts for CFTR and the ENaC alpha-subunit (r=-0.93, P<0.003) and beta-subunit (r=-0.91, P<0.004) in colon. VIP-stimulated cAMP in duodenal epithelial cells was greater in crypt than villus (P<0.05). Cl- efflux, CFTR transcription and forskolin-stimulated cAMP activity occur in both crypt and villus epithelial cells in duodenum. Possible interaction between CFTR and Na+ channels is apparently limited to parts of the colonic crypt. Lack of duodenal beta-subunit expression makes ENaC activity unlikely.