In the midgut of larval lepidopteran insects, goblet cells are believed to secrete K+; the proposed mechanism involves an electrogenic K+/nH+ (n > 1) antiporter coupled to primary active transport of H+ by a vacuolar-type ATPase. Goblet cells have a prominent apical cavity isolated from the gut lumen by a valve-like structure. Using H(+)- and K(+)-selective microelectrodes, we showed that electrochemical gradients of H+ and K+ across the apical membrane and valve are consistent with active secretion of both ions into the cavity and that the transapical H+ electrochemical gradient, but not the transapical pH gradient, is competent to drive K+ secretion by a K+/nH+ antiporter. We used 10 mmol l-1 tetramethylammonium ion (TMA+) as a marker for the ability of small cations to pass from the gut lumen through the valve to the goblet cavity, exploiting the high TMA+ sensitivity of 'K(+)-sensitive' microelectrodes. These studies showed that more than half of the cavities were inaccessible to TMA+. For those cavities that were accessible to TMA+, both entry and exit rates were too slow to be consistent with direct entry through the valves. One or more mixing compartments appear to lie between the lumen bathing solution and the goblet cavity. The lateral intercellular spaces and goblet cell cytoplasm are the most likely compartments. The results are not consistent with free diffusion of ions in a macroscopic valve passage; mechanisms that would allow K+ secreted into the goblet cavity to exit to the gut lumen, while preventing H+ from exiting, remain unclear.

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