1. 1.

    Whole-body ionic fluxes and gill chloride cell (CC) morphology were monitored in rainbow trout (Salmo gairdneri) exposed acutely or chronically to natural fresh water (NFW; [Na+]=0.120 mmoll−1; [Cr]=0.164 mmoll−1) or artificially prepared fresh water with reduced [NaCl] (AFW; [Na+]=0.017 mmoll−1; [CT]=0.014 mmoll−1).

  2. 2.

    Net fluxes of Na+ (JnetNa) and Cl (JnetCl) became extremely negative (indicating net NaCl loss to the environment) upon immediate exposure to AFW exclusively as a result of reduced NaCl influx (JinNa and JinNa). JnetNa and JnetCl were gradually restored to control rates during prolonged (30 days) exposure to AFW.

  3. 3.

    The restoration of JnetCl in AFW was due both to increased JinCl and to reduced Cl efflux (JoutCl) whereas the primary response contributing to the restoration of JnetNa a t was an increase of JNain.

  4. 4.

    The total apical surface area of branchial CCs exposed to the external environment increased markedly after 24 h in AFW and remained elevated for 1 month as a consequence of enlargement of individual CCs and, to a lesser extent, increased CC density. JinNa and JinNa were correlated significantly with total CC apical surface area.

  5. 5.

    Plasma cortisol levels rose transiently in fish exposed to AFW. Treatment of NFW-adapted fish with cortisol for 10 days (a protocol known to cause CC proliferation) caused pronounced increases in JinCl and JinNa, as measured in both NFW and AFW.

  6. 6.

    These results suggest that an important adaptational response of rainbow trout to low environmental [NaCl] is cortisol-mediated enlargement of branchial epithelial CCs which, in turn, enhances the NaCl-transporting capacity of the gill as a result of the proliferation of Na+ and Cl transport sites.

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