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In this study, the existence and functional activity of a vacuolar-type H(+)-ATPase (vH(+)-ATPase) was explored in primary cultures of sheep ruminal epithelial cells (REC). The mRNA transcripts of the E and B subunits of vH(+)-ATPase were detectable in RNA from REC samples by RT-PCR. Immunoblotting of REC protein extractions with antibodies directed against the B subunit of yeast vH(+)-ATPase revealed a protein band of the expected size (60 kDa). Using the fluorescent indicator BCECF and selective inhibitors (foliomycin, HOE 694, S3226), the contribution of vH(+)-ATPase and Na(+)/H(+) exchanger (NHE) subtype 1 and 3 activity to the regulation of intracellular pH (pH(i)) was determined in nominally HCO(3)(-)-free, HEPES-buffered NaCl medium containing 20 mM of the short-chain fatty acid butyrate as well as after reduction of the extracellular Cl(-) concentration ([Cl(-)](e)) from 136 to 36 mM. The initial pH(i) of REC was 7.4 +/- 0.1 in nominally HCO(3)(-)-free, HEPES-buffered NaCl medium and 7.0 +/- 0.1 after acid loading with butyrate. Selective inhibition of the vH(+)-ATPase with foliomycin decreased pH(i) by 0.19 +/- 0.03 pH units. On the basis of the observed decreases in pH(i) resulting from inhibition of vH(+)-ATPase as well as of subtypes 1 and 3 of NHE, vH(+)-ATPase activity appears to account for approximately 30% of H(+) extrusion, whereas the activities of NHE subtypes 3 and 1 account for 20 and 50% of H(+) extrusion, respectively. Lowering of [Cl(-)](e) induced a pH(i) decrease (-0.51 +/- 0.03 pH units) and impaired pH(i) recovery from butyrate-induced acid load. Moreover, reduction of [Cl(-)](e) abolished the inhibitory effect of foliomycin and markedly reduced the HOE 694- and S3226-sensitive components of pH(i), indicating a role of Cl(-) in the function of these H(+) extrusion mechanisms. We conclude that a vH(+)-ATPase is expressed in ovine REC and plays a considerable role in the pH(i) regulation of these cells.