The mechanisms of water transport across the rabbit renal proximal convoluted tubule were approached by measuring osmotic permeabilities and solute reflection coefficients of the brush-border and the basolateral membranes. Plasma and intracellular membrane vesicles were isolated from rabbit renal cortex by centrifugation on a Percoll gradient. Three major turbidity bands were obtained: a fraction of purified basolateral membranes (BLMV), the two others being brush-border (BBMV) and endoplasmic reticulum (ERMV) membrane vesicles. The osmotic permeability (Pf) of the three types of vesicle was measured using stop-flow techniques and their geometry was determined by quasi-elastic light scattering. Pf was equal to 123 +/- 8 microns/s (n = 10) for BBMV, 166 +/- 10 microns/s (n = 10) for BLMV and 156 +/- 9 microns/s (n = 4) for ERMV (T = 26 degrees C). A transcellular water permeability, per unit of apical surface area, of 71 microns/s was calculated considering that the luminal and the basolateral membranes act as two conductances in series. This value is in close agreement, after appropriate normalizations, with previously reported transepithelial water permeabilities obtained using in vitro microperfusion techniques thus supporting the hypothesis of a predominantly transcellular route for water flow across rabbit proximal convoluted tubule. The addition of 0.4 mM HgCl2, a sulfhydryl reagent, decreased Pf about 60% in three types of membrane providing evidence for the existence of proteic pathways. NaCl and KCl reflection coefficients were measured and found to be close to one for plasma and intracellular membranes suggesting that the water channels are not shared by salts.